WITNESSES: MICHAEL D. BROWN, FORMER UNDERSECRETARY FOR EMERGENCY RESPONSE AND PREPAREDNESS, AND DIRECTOR, FEMA
PATRICK RHODE, FORMER ACTING DEPUTY DIRECTOR AND CHIEF OF STAFF, FEMA, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY
SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS (R-Maine): (Strikes gavel.) The committee will come to order.
Good morning. Today, in our 18th hearing on Hurricane Katrina, the committee will examine how the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA coordinated and led the federal preparations for and response to Hurricane Katrina. Our first panel this morning consists of Michael Brown and Patrick Rhode, who were FEMA's director and acting deputy director in the days leading up to and following the storm.
As Katrina neared the Gulf Coast, Mr. Brown dispatched to Louisiana, leaving Mr. Rhode as the top-ranking official at FEMA headquarters. Today we will discuss their leadership of the agency during this enormously challenging period. Our second panel consists of two senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security headquarters. Robert Stephan is the assistant secretary for Infrastructure Protection and one of the chief architects of the National Response Plan. Matthew Broderick runs the department's Homeland Security Operations Center, which serves as the eyes and ears of top DHS officials, particularly during times of crisis. Secretary Chertoff relied heavily on Mr. Stephan and Mr. Broderick during Katrina's aftermath. We will discuss their roles and their views of FEMA from the top of the organizational chart. Our panels today separate witnesses from a federal agency, FEMA, from those of its parent organization, DHS. The separation is deliberate. It reflects in part the differing perspectives on Katrina that we have heard consistently from officials of the two entities. It also reflects tensions between the two that predate the storm -- tensions over resources, roles and responsibilities within the department.
This tension is clear in Mr. Brown's response when committee investigators asked him why FEMA was not better prepared for Katrina. Mr. Brown responded, quote, "Its mission had been marginalized. Its response capability had been diminished. There's the whole clash of cultures between DHS mission to prevent terrorism and FEMA's mission to respond to and to prepare for responding to disasters of whatever nature," end quote. By almost any measure, FEMA's response to Katrina has to be judged a failure. I must say that I've come to this conclusion with a sense of remorse, because I have been struck throughout this investigation by the extraordinary efforts of many FEMA professionals in the field, as well as some FEMA and DHS officials at headquarters, who literally worked around the clock to try to help bring relief to the people in the Gulf states. But the response was riddled with missed opportunities, poor decision-making and failed leadership.
The responsibility for FEMA's and, for that matter, the department's failed response is shared. While DHS's playbook appears designed to distance the department's leaders and headquarters as much as possible from FEMA, the department's leaders must answer for decisions that they made or failed to make that contributed to the problems. One problem that manifested itself in a variety of ways was the department's lack of preparedness for the Katrina catastrophe. Instead of springing into action, or better yet, acting before the storm made landfall, the department appears to have moved haltingly, and as a result, key decisions were either delayed or made based on questionable and in some cases erroneous assumptions.
The day after the storm, for example, Secretary Chertoff named Michael Brown as the lead federal official for the response effort. At the same time, the secretary declared Hurricane Katrina an incident of national significance, which is the designation that triggers the National Response Plan. The National Response Plan, in turn, is the comprehensive national road map that guides the federal response to catastrophes.
The secretary's action led many to question why the incident of national significance declaration had not been made earlier, but in reality, the declaration itself was meaningless because, by the plain terms of the National Response Plan, Hurricane Katrina had become an incident of national significance three days earlier, when the president declared an emergency in Louisiana. The lack of awareness of this fundamental tenet of the National Response Plan raises questions about whether DHS leadership was truly ready for a catastrophe of this magnitude. And I think it helps explain the department's slow, sometimes hesitant, response to the storm.
Similarly, we will learn today that FEMA's leaders failed to take steps that they knew could improve FEMA's ability to respond more effectively and quickly to a catastrophe. In the year or so preceding Katrina, Mr. Brown was presented with two important and highly critical assessments of FEMA's structure and capabilities. Both included recommendations for improvement.
The first was a memorandum produced by a cadre of FEMA's top professional operatives, known as the federal coordinating officers. Among other things, the memo warns of unprepared emergency response teams that had no funding -- zero funding -- for training, exercises The study, commissioned by Mr. Brown, was designed to answer such questions as what's preventing FEMA from responding and recovering as quickly as possible. The MITRE study is eerily predictive of the major problems that would plague the response to Hurricane Katrina. The study points out a lack of adequate and consistent situational awareness across the enterprise -- a prediction that became reality when you look at all the missed opportunities to respond to the levee breaks; an inadequate ability to control inventory and track assets -- we saw that over and over again with essential commodities not reaching the destination in time; an undefined and misunderstood standard operating procedures.
Despite this study, key problems were simply not resolved, and as a result, opportunities to strengthen FEMA prior to Katrina were missed.
As this committee winds down its lengthy series of hearings and more than five months of investigations into the preparedness for and response to Hurricane Katrina, we increasingly reflect upon what can be learned from the thousands of facts we have gathered. One thing that I have found is a strong correlation between effective leadership and effective response. Unfortunately, I have also found the converse to be true.