U.S. officials failed to employ a national disaster plan before Hurricane Katrina struck, but even if they had, the plan was so untested that it would not have made a dramatic difference, former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge said yesterday.
Speaking at length publicly for the first time about the Aug. 29 storm, which killed more than 1,200 people and triggered a domestic crisis for the Bush administration six months after Ridge left office, the former secretary defended the leadership of former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael D. Brown. However, Ridge said in an interview that more training is needed to unify disaster plans, managers and command systems at all levels of government.
Ridge said his old department should name regional chiefs to work closely with governors, mayors and state homeland security officials in each section of the country to prevent the breakdowns that hampered Brown, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin before and after the storm.
Ridge unsuccessfully pushed for a regional structure before stepping down in February. White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend is scheduled to finish work later this month on a broad internal review ordered by President Bush of the government's flawed response.
Now consulting and engaged in several private sector initiatives from temporary quarters on Capitol Hill, Ridge did not criticize his successor, Secretary Michael Chertoff. Instead, Ridge credited Chertoff for embracing some of Ridge's suggestions, such as a stronger focus on emergency preparedness and policy-setting.
Ridge said that he did not know what information Chertoff had at the time. And without casting blame, Ridge said that authorities did not use a response plan drafted in September of 2003 and finalized in January, activate a multi-agency crisis management group, or prepare adequately before the storm hit.
"There just didn't seem to me to be any collaboration up front, any communication," he said. "You don't have to be a meteorologist to see a big red ball going to New Orleans to say, 'Oh, my God, this is going to be big.' Shouldn't you be over-prepared, rather than under-prepared?"
Ridge said that "even if they had employed the National Response Plan before the disaster, rather than after the disaster, you'd have found probably, you know, some gaps in the response."
But if authorities had had a year or two to practice and exercise the plan, "the response would have been entirely different and far more positive," he said. "Unfortunately, Mother Nature didn't care . . . that the NRP hadn't been fully implemented."
Ridge said whatever Brown's performance, there was not a shortage of qualified leadership in FEMA, which Chertoff has criticized. Ridge said Brown and his team "did a pretty good job of managing" four hurricanes in Florida in 2004 and that the ranks below him "were all professional managers."
But Ridge called "predictable whining" and "way overblown" Brown's statements to Congress that the department pursued the "emaciation" of FEMA's budget and personnel since 2003.
"At the end of the day, they got the money to do their day-to-day operations," Ridge said. "When it required additional federal assistance because of the severity of storms, they got it."