Deconstructing Katrina

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

"Never did we dream that they would use our own airplanes as weapons."

-- President Bush, April 20, 2004.

"I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

-- Bush, Sept. 1, 2005.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) wore a burgundy suit, dangling earrings and a demure smile when she appeared in the Senate television studio yesterday. But the questions she asked were sharp and unnerving.

"If our system did such a poor job when there was no enemy, how would the federal, state and local governments have coped with a terrorist attack that provided no advance warning and that was intent on causing as much death and destruction as possible?" the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee wondered, announcing a probe into the response to Hurricane Katrina. "How is it possible that almost four years to the day after the attacks on our country, with billions of dollars spent to improve our preparedness, that a major area of our nation was so ill prepared to respond to a catastrophe?"

As horrendous as the death and dislocation have been in and around New Orleans, the government's "woefully inadequate" response there, as Collins put it, has left Americans far from the disaster area to assume that, if a terrorist's nuclear bomb goes off on K Street or smallpox is released in Times Square, it will be every man for himself. Bush linked the two yesterday, telling reporters, "We want to make sure that we can respond properly if there's a WMD attack or another major storm."

But there was a disconnect yesterday at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. On the Hill, outraged lawmakers launched a bipartisan investigation and demanded to know what good had come from all that homeland security spending. At the White House, the president was still operating in the conditional. "If things went wrong, we'll correct them," he said. "And when things went right, we'll duplicate them."

Collins and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, had scheduled their announcement of an investigation for 11:15 yesterday morning. Bush preempted them, inviting reporters into the Cabinet Room at 11:08. "What I intend to do is to lead an investigation to find out what went right and what went wrong," the president said.

Bush was in no hurry to probe. "There will be ample time to assess," he said. Rearranging a presidential coaster on the Cabinet table, he said that to ask questions while the relief operation is underway would be "to play a blame game."

The mood was more urgent on the Hill, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House was preparing legislation to separate FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security. In the Senate, the issue eclipsed the excitement over the sudden emergence of a second Supreme Court vacancy, with the death of Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

At an otherwise subdued briefing announcing the postponement of confirmation hearings for John G. Roberts Jr., Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) erupted when asked about the hurricane response. "We've given billions of dollars to the Department of Homeland Security," he said, almost shouting. "What in heaven's name was happening?"

Collins, performing before a standing-room-only crowd, had an answer to Bush's objections. She said her committee's goal is not "to fix blame," and she promised "not to divert resources from the rescue and recovery."

But she said the questions could not wait; hearings are planned for next week. "We would be remiss," she said, "if we did not ask the hard questions needed to understand what went so wrong and what our country must do to improve our ability to respond to future crises, whether they are natural disasters or terrorist attacks."

Lieberman, too, spoke of a problem bigger than New Orleans. "Hurricane Katrina was in one sense the most significant test of the new national emergency preparedness and response system that was created after 9/11, and it obviously did not pass that test," he said. "We need to know why -- not just to fix what went wrong, but in my opinion, to rebuild the confidence of the American people."

The normally adept White House has had trouble settling on a message over the past week. Officials have condemned the "blame game" even as they point fingers at state and local authorities. They have made public assertions -- that nobody anticipated a levee breach and that Louisiana did not declare a state of emergency -- that turned out to be flat wrong. Now, Bush is in the position of promising to lead an investigation but saying it's still a question of "if things went wrong."

After a midday meeting with the president at the White House, even top GOP congressional leaders dropped the "if." House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.) called for investigations "to make sure that this doesn't happen again." And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), promising to "investigate aggressively," floated the idea of an independent commission or bicameral committee. "If we don't have a strong disaster response," he said, things such as a bioterrorism attack "could result in not hundreds of deaths, but thousands of deaths and indeed millions of deaths."


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