Michael Chertoff: 'What the Hell Is Going on?'; in Washington, a Struggle to Find Answers to Terrible Questions

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Byline: Evan Thomas

The lowest moment, Michael Chertoff recalls, came at about 2 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1, three days after Katrina struck. An NPR interviewer asked the secretary of Homeland Security what he was doing about the thousands of people stranded at the Convention Center. Chertoff had no good answer. Hanging up from the interview, he turned and said to an aide, "What the hell is going on with the Convention Center?" Chertoff called his beleaguered FEMA chief, Mike Brown, and was told that there were only 1,500 people there. He ordered Homeland Security's Operations Center to "get some eyeballs" on the situation. Still, the answer came back: only 1,500 people. On the third go-round, Chertoff asked the head of the Federal Protection Service to take a look personally. This time the reported number shot up, to 10,000 to 15,000. Why the discrepancy? The earlier inspectors had failed to look in rooms "deep inside the building," says Chertoff.

It may seem remarkable that the secretary of Homeland Security had to be told by a radio reporter what was going on, and more incredible that it took three tries for his own people to catch up. But Katrina was a case study in how not to handle a disaster. "We weren't where we needed to be," acknowledges Chertoff. His department was in the midst of something called "second-stage review" on disaster planning, and FEMA, he says, lacked "the skill set" to do "preparedness." Pre-Katrina, Chertoff himself appeared to have been more focused on exotic threats from a bio-warfare attack by terrorists than storm damage from hurricanes.

Monday afternoon, after Katrina hit, Chertoff believed that the storm had been "bad" but not "quite as bad" as it might have been, and that the flooding was "manageable." He was not told that a FEMA official, Marty Bahamonde, had seen the levee breach on Monday afternoon and sent frantic e-mails to his bosses at FEMA. Reached by NEWSWEEK, Bahamonde said, "I've been asking myself the same question. Why didn't the information get through?"

A congressional investigating committee has released some embarrassing e-mails that suggest FEMA Director Brown was oddly detached from the urgency of the disaster. For instance, at 11:20 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 30, Bahamonde e-mailed Brown, "Sir, I know that you know the situation is past critical... thousands in the streets with no food and water... estimates that many will die within hours." Less than three hours later, Brown's press secretary, Sharon Worthy, was asking her colleagues to get more time for Brown to eat dinner because Baton Rouge restaurants were getting busy and "he needs much more than 20 or 30 minutes. …