Collins-Lieberman Hearing Exposes Confusion & Turf Battles Among Agencies Responding to Hurricane Katrina

Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ranking Member Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) today held a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee titled, “Hurricane Katrina: Managing Law Enforcement and Communications in a Catastrophe.”

The hearing focused on two essential elements of disaster response that suffered breakdowns following Hurricane Katrina: coordinated law enforcement to protect the public and first responders and effective communications to expedite rescue and relief efforts. This was the 16th in a series of hearings being held by the committee as part of its ongoing investigation into the government’s preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina.

Today’s hearing exposed confusion, turf battles, and interagency rivalries that occurred during and, in some cases, prevented the efficient response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The committee today released emails from key Department of Homeland Security (DHS) staffers demonstrating that nearly one week after Katrina hit, there was still confusion and debate over whether DHS or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) would serve as the lead agency in managing the public safety and law enforcement response.

Emails released today also show that communications companies were often held up by Federal, State, and local authorities from returning to New Orleans to repair the communications system, even though that system was vital to response and recovery efforts.

“The lack of coordination among law enforcement agencies at all levels of government was both obvious and unacceptable. Communications among first responders and with their headquarters were, at best, sporadic, inconsistent, and overwhelmed by competing traffic. More often, it was non-existent,” said Senator Collins. “This Committee has invested a great amount of time and effort over several years to strengthen the emergency response partnership and to improve our nation’s emergency communications capabilities, and we have made some progress. The problems highlighted today, however, demonstrate the grim consequences that result when that partnership breaks down and communications fail.”

“DHS was overwhelmed and largely unprepared to provide the emergency communications and law enforcement support the Gulf Coast needed after Hurricane Katrina struck. That’s a serious failure,” Lieberman said. “And that failure was part of a larger failure from Jan. 6, 2005 – when the National Response Plan was issued – to Aug. 29, when Katrina struck, of the Department of Homeland Security to take steps to clarify its role and prepare key officials to carry out their responsibilities under the National Response Plan in time of disaster. DHS’ unpreparedness left state, local police, firefighters, search and rescue teams, FEMA teams and Red Cross volunteers –and the public – adrift without communications or the public safety support they needed from the federal government.”

The witnesses who testified at today’s hearing were: Michael J. Vanacore, Director of International Affairs, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Kenneth W. Kaiser, Special Agent in Charge, Boston Field Office, Federal Bureau of Investigation; Warren J. Riley, Superintendent of Police, New Orleans Police Department; Peter M. Fonash, Ph.D., Deputy Manager, National Communications System, U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Colonel FG Dowden, Regional Liaison, New Orleans Department of Homeland Security and Public Safety; William L. Smith, Chief Technology Officer, BellSouth Corporation.