Senate Democrats

Reid Letter to Chairman Collins on Oversight Hearing

“Nearly four years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 sent a clear signal that we needed to be better prepared for major catastrophes on U.S. soil, the American people have a right to expect their government to perform better.”

Washington, DC – Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid sent the following letter to Senator Susan Collins, Chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Copy of full letter below:

September 6, 2005

The Honorable Susan M. Collins
Committee on Homeland Security
and Governmental Affairs
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Madam Chairman:

I was pleased to learn that you and Senator Lieberman, the Ranking Member on your committee, have jointly agreed to conduct oversight hearings into the federal government’s response to the tragic events surrounding Hurricane Katrina.

Although officials are still assessing the full impact of this disaster, it appears likely that Hurricane Katrina will be the most devastating natural disaster in this nation’s history. Thousands of Americans may have lost their lives and hundreds of thousands have been rendered homeless and stripped of their livelihoods. Economic and other damages could easily exceed $150 billion.

Most experts felt a major hurricane in this section of the Gulf Coast was inevitable. Federal officials were apparently well-informed about the consequences of such a storm as well as the measures needed to respond before and after such a storm hit. Despite these facts and several days notice that a major hurricane would strike the Gulf Coast region, the federal response was “unacceptable”, as the President has acknowledged. For too many days, residents in New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast were left to fend for themselves.

Nearly four years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 sent a clear signal that we needed to be better prepared for major catastrophes on U.S. soil, the American people have a right to expect their government to perform better. It is essential that this body fully exercise our oversight responsibilities to ensure that we understand what happened in this instance and what needs to be done to ensure that the federal government will be better prepared to respond to future emergencies.

I believe your Committee would do the Senate and the country an important service if it could explore the following issues that have been raised by many objective analysts:

  1. Administration inaction to warnings of catastrophic flooding in New Orleans. President Bush, Secretary Chertoff, and other top Administration officials have repeatedly stated that no one “anticipated the breach of the levees.” Yet, public studies and analyses made available to the Administration have long warned that a major storm was inevitable and would lead to the breeching of New Orleans’ levees with catastrophic results. Why, then, was the Administration so unprepared to deal with the breaching of the levees?
  2. Administration insistence on harmful budget cuts. In the face of these warnings about the risks involved of a catastrophic hurricane, why did the Administration reject urgent and repeated requests from local and state officials and the Army Corps of Engineers for programs that could have helped prevent or alleviate this disaster? What specific impact did budget cuts for programs such as levee repairs/maintenance, emergency planning grants, wetlands restoration, and other related items have on the damage caused by Katrina?
  3. Slow Administration response to Hurricane Katrina warnings. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, has stated that both DHS Secretary Chertoff and FEMA Director Brown listened to NHC briefings days before Katrina’s landfall that discussed the strength of the storm and its potential impact. Given these warnings, why did FEMA and DHS fail to adequately prepare for the consequences? Who else received these briefings? Did Secretary Chertoff or Director Brown communicate these warnings to President Bush, Secretary Rumsfeld, Leavitt, Mineta or other key Cabinet officials? If so, what specific actions did each cabinet official take?
  4. FEMA rejection of assistance. Is it true that FEMA turned away offers of assistance from states, nonprofit agencies, and the private sector – including offers for generators, water, fuel, food aid, transportation, and fire control? If so, why?
  5. Absence from Washington of the President and key officials. How much time did the President spend dealing with this emerging crisis while he was on vacation? Did the fact that he was outside of Washington, D.C. have any effect on the federal government’s response? When it became apparent a major hurricane was days away from striking the Gulf Coast, why didn’t President Bush immediately return to Washington from his vacation and why didn’t he recall key officials and staff members back from their vacations? Would the presence of key officials in Washington have improved the response?
  6. Failure to implement National Response Plan. The Bush Administration published a National Response Plan for responding to catastrophic incidents, including natural disasters, in December 2004. The plan explicitly states that the federal government can override notification and request for assistance regulations in order to expedite assistance, and that “the coordination process must not delay or impede the rapid deployment and use of critical resources.” Why did the Bush Administration fail to act according to the National Response Plan?
  7. Failure to cut through red tape. Numerous reports indicate that bureaucratic red tape impeded the rapid delivery of assistance for critical needs, such as shelter, transportation, and food. Did Administration officials have the authority to cut through this red tape and, if so, why didn’t they exercise this authority?
  8. Failure to send sufficient number of troops immediately. Why did it take several days for National Guard and active military units to reach positions in New Orleans and around the Gulf Coast? Why did the Secretary of Defense wait until Saturday – five days after the hurricane struck – to deploy soldiers from the nearest Army base, Fort Polk, LA? What effect have extended overseas deployments of National Guard and Reserve forces had on these forces’ abilities to respond to emergencies on U.S. soil?
  9. Lack of interoperable communications. The Wall Street Journal reports that the response effort has been plagued by “a total breakdown of communications systems, an echo of the problems that faced New York officials dealing with the 2001 terrorist attacks and a system the government has been trying to fix for four years,” specifically citing “incompatible radio systems.” Why has the Administration failed to solve this problem? Would the adoption of congressional amendments to increase funds for this equipment helped to mitigate this problem?
  10. Failure to respond to state and local officials. State and local officials indicate that they were asking for immediate and massive federal assistance from the outset, but that the federal government failed to mobilize for several days, dragging its feet and failing to appreciate the impact of the storm. Did this Administration work as closely in this case with state and local officials as did previous Administrations or during previous disasters?
  11. Administration efforts to shift blame from its own failures. Shortly after it became apparent that the government’s response was grossly inadequate, comments attributed to unidentified Administration officials suggested that the primary blame for the chaotic response rested with state and local officials. Is there any evidence that Administration officials decided to intentionally mislead the public?
  12. Effects of organizational changes at FEMA. It appears that FEMA suffered from serious systemic failures in virtually every aspect of it response to Katrina. Did these failures stem directly from the decision to strip FEMA of its cabinet level status and include it in a department where countering terrorist attacks is the primary focus? There have also been reports that many of FEMA’s most experienced and capable personnel have left the agency recently. It is essential that your committee speak with current and former FEMA officials, especially those who have worked at the agency before and since the transition.
  13. Preparation for future disasters. What do experts predict about the frequency and intensity of hurricanes and other natural disasters striking the U.S. in the immediate future? What actions should the Administration and Congress take immediately to address the lessons you draw from the U.S. government’s response to Hurricane Katrina so that we will be better able to respond to future emergencies including major terrorist attacks?

I commend your decision to undertake this investigation. Your committee has an opportunity and a responsibility to help provide answers to the many important questions surrounding the federal government’s response. The Senate and the American people look forward to the results of your inquiry.


Harry Reid
Democratic Leader

CC: Senator Joseph Lieberman