Calling Hurricane Katrina's magnitude "unprecedented," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff began testimony before a Senate committee today by taking responsibility for the department's response.
"I am accountable, and I accept responsibility for the performance of the entire department -- the bad and the good," Chertoff said.
"One of the most difficult and traumatic experiences of my life ... was the process of anticipating and managing and dealing with the consequences of Katrina," he added.
Chertoff said that he had been assured by former FEMA Director Michael Brown that the agency was working with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Defense to prepare for the storm. But, he noted: "There are many lapses that occurred."
"It is completely correct to say that our logistics capability in Katrina was woefully inadequate," Chertoff said, promising remedies by the start of the 2006 hurricane season in June. "I was astonished to see we didn't have the capability most 21st century corporations have to track the flow of goods and services."
Chertoff, on the job for one year today, drew sharp criticism from both the chairwoman and senior Democrat on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and senators from both parties. This was the committee's 20th and final hearing in its five-month investigation of government failures surrounding Hurricane Katrina. A full report should be published sometime in mid-March.
The Department of Homeland Security's performance in responding to the hurricane "must be judged a failure," said the panel's chairwoman, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
She called it "late, uncertain and ineffective."
Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the panel's top Democrat, criticized Chertoff for going to Atlanta for an unrelated conference on Aug. 30, the day after the storm roared ashore.
"How could you go to bed that night [Aug. 29] not knowing what was going on in New Orleans?" Lieberman asked.
Chertoff said that while there had been some reports -- 15, according to the committee investigation -- on Monday after the hurricane hit that the levies had broken, the majority of the evidence showed small amounts of water overflowing. It was not until 6 a.m. Tuesday that Chertoff said he knew of the levy breach, which contradicts what Brown said last week.
Lieberman said that under Chertoff's oversight, disaster workers "ran around like Keystone cops, uncertain about what they were supposed to do or uncertain how to do it."
Early in the proceedings, a man in the audience was removed by security for a moment after shouting comments apparently about this week's end of a FEMA program that paid for hotel rooms for hundreds of homeless evacuees.
"But senators," said Rev. Lennox Yearwood, president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, "there are mothers and children being thrown in the streets."
"This is un-American," said Yearwood, as Chertoff sat stoically. "They're being evicted."
The man returned and watched the rest of the hearing.
The role of Brown, who resigned from FEMA amid criticism of his performance during Katrina, was a focus of the senators.
Collins told Chertoff "I remain perplexed" about his decision to designate Brown as the point man on coordinating the government's response to Katrina.