Chertoff Tells Senators Katrina Capabilities Were 'Woefully Inadequate'

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.

Brown's Role

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.

Despite the criticism, Brown has accused others in the administration, including White House officials and Chertoff, of dragging their feet and ignoring his warnings of widespread flooding in New Orleans before the storm hit.

Chertoff said there was "no reason to doubt his commitment."

"If I knew then what I know now about Mr. Brown's agenda, I would have done something different," Chertoff added.

He reiterated earlier statements that he did not realize that levees in New Orleans had been breached on the day of the storm -- despite Brown's claims to the contrary.

"When I went to bed, it was my belief … that actually the storm had not done the worst that could be imagined," Chertoff said.

Collins told Chertoff that "you did seem curiously disengaged to me" when he attended a conference on avian flu in Atlanta on Aug. 30, instead of rushing to the storm scene.

Critical Report

Also today, a group of Republican Congress members released a report that sharply criticizes the Bush administration's handling of the hurricanes that hit the nation's Gulf Coast last year.

According to portions of the draft obtained by ABC News, the report says Chertoff executed his responsibilities "late, ineffectively or not at all."

The report, produced by an 11-member House select committee of Republicans, said that if Sept. 11 was a failure of imagination, "Katrina was a failure of initiative" because it was widely known that the Gulf Coast was positioned to be severely damaged by hurricane-related flooding. "This crisis was not only predictable, it was predicted," the report says.

Democrats refused to participate.

On Monday, Chertoff announced a major reorganization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which calls for the following:

The addition of a "substantial" number of permanent employees to serve as a core disaster work force

New communications equipment that will still work when power fails

Special teams to coordinate information sharing between agencies

On Tuesday, the White House said President Bush had full confidence in Chertoff and had not considered asking him to step down.

"Secretary Chertoff is doing a great job," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said, answering a reporter's question about Chertoff. "The president appreciates his strong leadership. He is someone who is committed to doing everything he can to protect the American people and to continuing to take steps to make sure we are better prepared to respond to the threats that we face."

Brown told a Senate panel last week that he had dealt directly with the White House in Katrina's aftermath rather than with what he described as a bumbling Homeland Security bureaucracy. Brown said the agency under Chertoff's leadership had been preoccupied with terror threats at the expense of preparing for natural disasters.

The Bush administration has been pushing back aggressively against criticism from Brown and congressional investigators.

Chertoff on Monday rejected criticism that his agency was preoccupied with terror threats at the expense of preparing for natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

"I want to tell you I unequivocally and strongly reject this attempt to drive a wedge between our concerns about terrorism and our concerns about natural disasters," Chertoff said.

Report: President 'Misinformed'

Committee member Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., said: "The president was clearly misinformed. We had a tabletop exercise -- Hurricane Pam -- that predicted at a level 4 [hurricane], the dam was going to be breached."

Yet Bush, in a Sept. 1 interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer, said he didn't think that anyone knew that the New Orleans levees could be breached, forcing many of the city's residents from their homes.

"If this is what happens when we have advance warning, we shudder to imagine the consequences when we do not," the report says, referring to a possible terror attack. "Four-and-a-half years after 9/11, America is still not ready for prime time."

Hurricane Katrina killed 1,321 people, including 1,072 in Louisiana. It displaced about 2 million people and caused more than $150 billion in damage.

"The White House was clearly in a fog," Shays said. "Chertoff, the head of Homeland Security, was clearly detached. He didn't even go to New Orleans 'til Wednesday; then you have [FEMA Director Michael Brown], who was clueless and negligent."

The reports say that Chertoff convened an interagency board of experienced strategic advisers on Aug. 30, rather than Aug. 27, when he should have. Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 29. It also says that Chertoff designated the untrained Brown to manage the disaster.

"It just stood and watched it fail," said Shays, referring to the Department of Homeland Security. If Chertoff had declared Katrina "a catastrophic event and what that would have done is it would have sent things to this area before we were asked by the governor and the mayor and they obviously asked us too late."

Shays also said the federal government mismanaged the way relief came to the hurricanes' victims. Money was wasted on tattoos, bail bondsmen, even sex toys.

"We were sending so much money that the control just disappeared," he said.

ABC News' Zach Wolf, Martha Raddatz and The Associated Press contributed to this report.