Homeland Insecurity: The Blame Game

After Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration set out to lessen the federal government’s culpability in the wake of natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and other emergencies.

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President Bush is fond of declaring that the government’s most important job is to protect the American people from harm. When it comes to catastrophic events, whether natural disasters or terrorist attacks, this job breaks down into two equally important components: prevention and response. The anniversaries of both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, set just two weeks apart and commemorating the untimely deaths of some 4,800 Americans, stand as painful reminders of how completely the U.S. government has failed at its most essential task.

This series has so far focused primarily on prevention—on how many vital steps the federal government hasn’t yet taken, even six years after 9/11, to prevent or minimize the impact of another terrorist attack. When it comes to response, the Bush administration’s record is even more dismal, if possible. The overarching federal strategy is, theoretically at least, spelled out in a single document called the “National Response Plan,” which was released in January 2005 by the then-newly-formed Department of Homeland Security. Unfortunately, hurricane Katrina laid bare deadly and shameful inadequacies in the plan. And how did the Bush administration respond? Rather than tightening up the system to ensure a better result next time, it set out to revise the plan in a way that reduces the federal government’s responsibility and culpability in the aftermath of future disasters.

This process has taken place quietly—in large part, secretly—with little attention from the press or Congress. That may begin to change this week when Eleanor Holmes Norton, who chairs a subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, convenes hearings on the National Response Plan. Norton, the delegate from Washington, D.C., is one of the most liberal and articulate Democrats in Congress (despite not being allowed to vote). Also the cosponsor of a bipartisan bill to remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and restore its status as an independent agency, she has good reason to be concerned about emergency response, since the nation’s capital itself has no viable response plan. Even relatively pedestrian events, like snowfalls of 6 inches or minor hurricanes, can leave the city without electricity and other utilities for weeks. An attack or major natural disaster in D.C. undoubtedly would set off unprecedented chaos, including tremendous bottlenecks on its small number of exit routes. (Only the courage of the passengers on Flight 93, thought to be headed toward the Capitol or the White House, saved the District from such chaos six years ago.)

Norton will have much to investigate in the checkered history of the National Response Plan, which was originally issued with great fanfare. Then-DHS secretary Tom Ridge lauded the plan as “a bold step forward in bringing unity in our response to disasters and terrorist threats and attacks.” Weighing in at 426 pages, this comprehensive plan, reportedly written in cooperation with state, local, and private sector partners, would be used, the DHS claimed, by “all federal departments and agencies that may be required to assist or support during a national incident.”

But when Katrina struck eight months later, something quite different happened. With a few exceptions (notably the Coast Guard), federal emergency response was virtually nonexistent as thousands on the Gulf Coast suffered and died. When the true depth of the disaster—and the corresponding public relations nightmare—began to dawn on the Bush administration, it moved with a Rove-designed strategy to reassign blame to state and local governments. DHS secretary Michael Chertoff, in particular, questioned the feds’ authority to take action without specific state requests, and suggested that a new “model” was needed for dealing with such “ultra-catastrophes.”

It was as if no one in the administration had read their own plan. A section of the National Response Plan, called the Catastrophic Incident Annex, clearly afforded the DHS broad authority to bypass states and localities in deploying search-and-rescue operations, food and water, medical teams, and a host of other “key essential resources.” Various declarations made by Bush and Chertoff had automatically triggered that authority—and, I might add, the corresponding responsibility—although neither seemed to have known it.

When the White House announced after Katrina that it would revise the National Response Plan, it advertised the upcoming process as a grand collaboration between “stakeholders” on the national, state, and local levels. And by this spring, according to New Mexico’s homeland security director Tim Manning, who was on the federal steering committee to create the new NRP, “the plan, which had been drafted by the feds with state and local help, was ready for public comment.”

Then something bizarre happened. According to Manning, who also is a member of the National Emergency Management Association (NEMA), a group of state emergency managers, “Unexpectedly and suddenly, the feds withdrew the plan. Homeland Security said it was not adequate and they started rewriting it in secret.” An April 2007 announcement from the DHS declared the draft in need of work and “substantial format changes,” particularly so that it might become more “user-friendly.”

After substantial time writing behind closed doors, the feds distributed a new version of the plan for comment, but only to various federal departments. State and local agencies were excluded from the process and have since expressed outrage. “They are just going to tell us what was done,” Manning says. NEMA has assembled comments on the document, wanted or not, and Manning is slated to testify before the Holmes subcommittee today, on September 11. The revised NRP, as issued by the DHS, is a mere 71 pages long—a sixth of its previous length—and has been renamed the “National Response Framework.”

In fact, both the process behind and results of this revision reveal the true goal of the new plan, which is to codify a continued reduction in the federal government’s responsibility for emergency response. This move goes beyond the administration’s short-term desire to deflect Katrina blame and serves the larger ideological goal of reducing federal public services and the size of the federal government as a whole. “It seems that the Katrina federal legacy is one of minimizing exposure for the next event and ensuring future focus is centered on state and local preparedness,’ said Al Ashwood at a congressional hearing on July 31. Ashwood, who is Oklahoma’s Director of Emergency Management, was testifying before Henry Waxman’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the topic of “FEMA Preparedness in 2007 and Beyond.”

Speaking of the National Response Framework, Ashwood told the House Committee, “I have never experienced a more polarized environment between state and federal government.” Predicting that the new response plan would be touted as a “collaboration between all level of government,” he advised congressional members to “have a shovel nearby when you hear this.”

Tomorrow: Myths and facts about 9/11

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This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

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