WASHINGTON – Calling Hurricane Katrina "one of the most difficult and traumatic experiences of my life," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says he is fixing failures in his department before next storm season.
"There are many lapses that occurred, and I've certainly spent a lot of time personally, probably since last fall, thinking about things that might have been done differently," Chertoff told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
His testimony on the government's response to the Aug. 29 storm that devastated much of the Gulf Coast came Wednesday as a House panel released a scathing report concluding that deaths, damage and suffering could have been reduced if the White House and federal, state and local officials had moved more urgently.
Chertoff was meeting with the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday to discuss his department's 2007 budget.
Katrina was one of the costliest and deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history, killing more than 1,300 people, causing tens of billions of dollars in damage and forcing hundreds of thousands from their homes.
The House report — titled "A Failure of Initiative" — found ample fault with state and local officials, including delays in ordering early evacuations in New Orleans. But it also criticized President Bush for failing to get more deeply involved as the crisis unfolded.
In a sampling of 63 communications to the White House that the report documents, at least eight were dated before Katrina's Aug. 29 landfall. The documents show that presidential advisers were warned about potential disaster as early as Aug. 27.
"Earlier presidential involvement might have resulted in a more effective response," the inquiry concluded. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the report Tuesday.
Chertoff, who took over Homeland Security a year ago Wednesday, oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which coordinated the federal response. He promised senators he would address many of the shortfalls by the start of the hurricane season on June 1.
"Our logistics capability in Katrina was woefully inadequate," he said. "I was astonished to see we didn't have the capability most 21st-century corporations have to track the flow of goods and services."
The House panel's report detailed "a litany of mistakes, misjudgments, lapses and absurdities all cascading together, blinding us to what was coming and hobbling any collective effort to respond."
The 520-page report added, "Government failed because it did not learn from past experiences, or because lessons thought to be learned were somehow not implemented."
Chertoff said he would do things differently if he had the chance — including, most notably, giving onsite responsibility for the relief effort to someone other than former FEMA director Michael Brown. Brown, who quit under fire days after Katrina hit, has accused Chertoff and White House officials of ignoring his warnings on the day of the storm.
"If I knew then what I know now about Mr. Brown's agenda, I would have done something different," Chertoff added.
Brown responded in an e-mail to The Associated Press that Chertoff "hamstrung" him from responding faster by confining him to Baton Rouge instead of sending him to disaster sites. He also said the House report supports his position that Homeland Security "has decimated FEMA to the point it can't do its job."
The Senate is preparing its own conclusions, due in March, about the storm response, as is the White House in a report expected by the end of this month.
Meanwhile, Congress increased the borrowing power of the federal flood insurance agency in an attempt to meet unprecedented claims from Katrina and other hurricanes last year.
And White House reconstruction coordinator Don Powell announced $4.2 billion in grants that probably will be used to help uninsured Louisiana homeowners whose properties inside flood plains were destroyed. The money is part of an anticipated $18 billion spending plan for the Gulf Coast.