CNN’s O’Brien Presses Chertoff About Katrina Failures

On CNN’s “American Morning” today, Soledad O’Brien spent much of her interview with Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff focusing on what happened in New Orleans three weeks ago when Katrina hit rather than questioning the secretary about how prepared the Gulf coast is for the looming Hurricane Rita (video link and full transcript to follow):

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Lots of officials have told us that they're looking forward in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And I understand that. But I'm curious to know what you see as your responsibility in the big problems in responding to that storm. We heard from the mayor who said he'll take his fair share of the blame. The governor who said the state response buck stops with her. The president said the federal response issues are his fault. Do you take blame for some of the problems?

After a lengthy answer, O’Brien continued to press Chertoff about Katrina:

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: But do you see failures in your role and failures in your office in the response to Hurricane Katrina?
CHERTOFF: You know, as I say, I mean my office and I personally have responsibility for this department. I had it when I took the oath in February and I have it now. And that responsibility puts on me the obligation to fix what I need to fix, which is what I'm in the process of doing.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: So you'll take responsibility for the fixes but not any of the problems that happened?
CHERTOFF: You know, I think, Soledad, I've been as clear as I possibly can about how I see the way going forward.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: OK, sir, but I'm not sure that that's a clear answer for me, but I will take it as your answer.

Video Link

Full Transcript:

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: All right, Chad, thanks.
Many questions still to be answered about FEMA's slow response to Hurricane Katrina. Is the agency now ready for Hurricane Rita? The Department of Homeland Security oversees FEMA. Secretary Michael Chertoff joins us this morning from the White House.
Nice to see you, Secretary Chertoff. Thank you for talking with us this morning.
SECY. MICHAEL CHERTOFF, DEPT. OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Good morning.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Do you feel that FEMA is better prepared this time around, better prepared for Hurricane Rita as it approaches than it was for Katrina?
CHERTOFF: Well, we've obviously poured a lot of effort and a lot of resources and people into what we're doing in Katrina. Still doing in Katrina. But one of the things we did at the same time was start to backfill with respect to supplies and people and resources because we anticipated at least the possibility of a second storm coming. And so we've been working to that possibility really for the past couple of weeks.
We've now pre-positioned or are in the process of pre-positioning a lot of supplies. We've got helicopters on standby. We're working very closely with the governor and the other state officials to make sure that we are completely connected in terms of their needs and what capabilities they're asking us to bring to the table. And so we are taking it very seriously and we are leaning as far forward as we can in preparation.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: What about communication fixes? Obviously the communication, or lack of, it was such a disaster in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. What's been done to repair that? CHERTOFF: Well, we are making sure that our communication systems with our state and local first responders are as go as they can be. We're recognizing, of course, that a hurricane is a killer storm and it's going to knock out cell towers and knock out other kinds of communication equipment. I think one of key things we're seeing is, trying to get people out of the path of this storm as early as possible and that means also making provisions for people in nursing homes or hospitals to get them out a couple of days in advance so that they're out of harm's way and they don't need to be rescued.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: As was clear in Katrina, bickering over who's in control and who's a control was a big problem. So after Rita makes landfall, or as Rita makes landfall, who is in charge?
CHERTOFF: Well, of course, the first responders on the ground are typically the emergency personnel, the National Guard folks who are actually deployed in the area to come in as quickly as possible. And I know Governor Perry has called up 5,000 National Guard. We're going to be ready with the capabilities we can add. If that's military capabilities, if it's supplies, if it's helicopters.
The Coast Guard, of course, stands by to do the same kind of superb job that it did in the wake of Katrina. And Katrina, we also uses customs and border protection folks. We're going to have them ready to go. We've got them deployed. It's really all hands on deck to deal with this storm.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: And you've named a person to be responsible for the on the ground efforts in Texas. Isn't that role essentially redundant to what the director of FEMA is supposed to be doing?
CHERTOFF: Well, one of the things we want to do, because we recognize that FEMA is still very much involved in the challenge of helping people rebuild in Mississippi and Louisiana, is to make sure that we have somebody who is going to be focused exclusively on Texas. And so I've designated a coast guard admiral as my principle federal officer on the ground, again, to make sure we have the maximum ability to have somebody who is has full responsibility for this particular storm.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Lots of officials have told us that they're looking forward in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. And I understand that. But I'm curious to know what you see as your responsibility in the big problems in responding to that storm. We heard from the mayor who said he'll take his fair share of the blame. The governor who said the state response buck stops with her. The president said the federal response issues are his fault. Do you take blame for some of the problems?
CHERTOFF: You know, Soledad, six months before Katrina, I took the oath of office as secretary of Homeland Security. And when I did that I assumed the responsibility for the department, things that worked well, things that didn't work well. And so that is all my responsibility. My responsibility is to fix the things that don't work well and that's what we are in the process of doing right now. And as Rita points out, it's the kind of job we have to undertake immediately because storms or other catastrophes don't wait for us to take a long leisurely look backward. And so we are repairing things even as we move forward to meet new challenges.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: But do you see failures in your role and failures in your office in the response to Hurricane Katrina?
CHERTOFF: You know, as I say, I mean my office and I personally have responsibility for this department. I had it when I took the oath in February and I have it now. And that responsibility puts on me the obligation to fix what I need to fix, which is what I'm in the process of doing.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: So you'll take responsibility for the fixes but not any of the problems that happened?
CHERTOFF: You know, I think, Soledad, I've been as clear as I possibly can about how I see the way going forward.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: OK, sir, but I'm not sure that that's a clear answer for me, but I will take it as your answer.
I thank you very much for joining us this morning. Secretary of Homeland Security Chertoff with us.
CHERTOFF: You're welcome.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.