RUSSERT: How could the president be so wrong, be so misinformed? Mr. Secretary... are you planning your resignation?
The following is an excerpt of the transcript from Sunday's meet the Press with Tim Russert. The full transcript is available here.
MR. RUSSERT: Now, let's turn to Hurricane Katrina. Joining us is the man in charge of the federal response to the disaster, the director of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff.
Mr. Secretary, this is yesterday's Daily News: "Shame Of A Nation." And I want to read it to you and our viewers very carefully. It says, "As for Chertoff, if this is the best his department can do, the homeland is not very secure at all. It is absolutely outrageous that the United States of America could not send help to tens of thousands of forlorn, frightened, sick and hungry human beings at least 24 hours before it did, arguably longer than that. Who is specifically at fault for what is nothing less than a national scandal... It will never be known exactly what a day could have meant to so many unfortunates whose lives came to an end in those hopelessly tortured hours--on scorching roadsides, for lack of a swallow of water, in sweltering hospital bads, for lack of insulin. But what is already more than clear is that the nation's disaster-preparedness mechanisms do not appear to be in the hands of officials who know how to run them."
Mr. Secretary, are you or anyone who reports to you contemplating resignation?
SEC'Y MICHAEL CHERTOFF: You know, Tim, what we're contemplating now is the fact that we are very, very much in the middle of a crisis. There's a bit of a sense that you get that some people think it's now time to draw a sigh of relief and go back and do the after-action analysis, and there'll be plenty of time for that. We obviously need to look very closely at things that worked well, and many things did work well, and some things that didn't work well, and some things did not work well.
But we have to remember that we have an enormous challenge ahead of us, and there's not a lot of time to get ahead of it. We have basically moved the population of New Orleans to other parts of the country, or we're in the process of doing so. We've got to feed them. We've got to shelter the people. We've got to get them housing. We've got to educate their children. We have to dewater the city. We have to clean up the environment. We're going to have to rebuild. Those are enormous, enormous tasks, and we can't afford to get those messed up.
So what I'm focused on now and what I want my department--in fact, what the president has ordered all of us to be focused on now--is: What do we need to do in the next hours, in the next days, in the next weeks and the next months to make sure we are doing everything possible to give these people succor and to make their lives easier?
MR. RUSSERT: Mr....
SEC'Y CHERTOFF: We will have time to go back and do an after-action report, but the time right now is to look at what the enormous tasks ahead are.
MR. RUSSERT: Well, many Americans believe now is the time for accountability. The Republican governor of Massachusetts said, "We are an embarrassment to the world." The Republican senator from Louisiana, David Vitter, said that you deserve a grade of F, flunk. How would you grade yourself?
SEC'Y CHERTOFF: You know, Tim, again I'm going to--the process of grading myself and grading everybody else is one that we will examine over time. I will tell you that my focus now is on what is going to go forward. What would really be--require a grade of F would be to stop thinking about the crisis we have now so that we can start to go back and do the after-action analysis. There are some things that actually worked very well. There are some things that didn't. We may have to break the model that we have used for dealing with catastrophes, at least in the case of ultra-catastrophes.
And let me tell you, Tim, there is nobody who has ever seen or dealt with a catastrophe on this scale in this country. It has never happened before. So no matter what the planning was in advance, we were presented with an unprecedented situation. Obviously, we're going to want to learn about that. I'll tell you something I said when I--a month ago before this happened. I said that I thought that we need to build a preparedness capacity going forward that we have not yet succeeded in doing. That clearly remains the case, and we will in due course look at what we've done here and incorporate it into the planning. But first we are going to make sure we are attending to the crisis at hand.
MR. RUSSERT: So no heads will roll?
SEC'Y CHERTOFF: Tim, in due course, if people want to go and chop heads off, there'll be an opportunity to do it. The question I would put to people is what do you want to have us spend our time on now? Do we want to make sure we are feeding, sheltering, housing and educating those who are distressed, or do we want to begin the process of finger-pointing? I know that as far as I'm concerned I have got to be focused on, and everybody else in this government, and the president has made this very clear, we have got to focus on moving forward to deal with some very real emergencies which are going to be happening in the next days and weeks because of the fact that we have to deal with an unprecedented movement of evacuees.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Vitter, the Republican from Louisiana, said the death toll could reach 10,000 because of the lack of response. Do you agree with that number?
SEC'Y CHERTOFF: You know, I understand first of all, Tim, that--and I'm clearly including myself among this group--many, many people are frustrated and very distressed by what happened here. Obviously, every minute matters in a situation like this. I think I said that we are racing the clock. But even with that sense of frustration and being upset, I don't think that I'm in a position to start to speculate and guess about what the numbers will be.
I will tell you one thing I know, that when we come to the point that we've completed the evacuation, we're going to start dewatering the city--in fact, it's under way now--we're going to confront some very, very ugly pictures. Many people may have been trapped when that levee broke, and the lake basically became, you know, part of the city of New Orleans. People were trapped in their houses and couldn't get out. Some of those people fortunately apparently were able to be safe and are coming out now.
We rescued 10,000 people, the Coast Guard did. That's three times as many as in any prior year. Think about that. That's an--that is compressing in three days the rescue efforts of--three times the rescue efforts of any prior year. There were some extraordinary actions that were taken by people at all levels, including people at the Department of Homeland Security where the Coast Guard is. So we have worked very aggressively, but we got to tell you, we have to prepare the country for what may be some very, very difficult pictures in the weeks to come.
MR. RUSSERT: People were stunned by a comment the president of the United States made on Wednesday, Mr. Secretary. He said, "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." How could the president be so wrong, be so misinformed?
SEC'Y CHERTOFF: Well, I think if you look at what actually happened, I remember on Tuesday morning picking up newspapers and I saw headlines, "New Orleans Dodged The Bullet," because if you recall the storm moved to the east and then continued on and appeared to pass with considerable damage but nothing worse. It was on Tuesday that the levee--may have been overnight Monday to Tuesday--that the levee started to break. And it was midday Tuesday that I became aware of the fact that there was no possibility of plugging the gap and that essentially the lake was going to start to drain into the city. I think that second catastrophe really caught everybody by surprise. In fact, I think that's one of the reasons people didn't continue to leave after the hurricane had passed initially. So this was clearly an unprecedented catastrophe. And I think it caused a tremendous dislocation in the response effort and, in fact, in our ability to get materials to people.
And one last point I'd make is this, Tim. We had actually prestaged a tremendous number of supplies, meals, shelter, water. We had prestaged, even before the hurricane, dozens of Coast Guard helicopters, which were obviously nearby but not in the area. So the difficulty wasn't lack of supplies. The difficulty was that when the levee broke, it was very, very hard to get the supplies to the people. I-10 was submerged. There was only one significant road going all the way the way around. Much of the city was flooded. The only way to get to people and to get supplies was to have airdrops and helicopters. And frankly, it is very--and their first priority was rescuing people from rooftops. So we really had a tremendous strain on the capacity of--to be able to both rescue people and also to be able to get them supplies.
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Secretary, you say prestaged. People were sent to the Convention Center. There was no water, no food, no beds, no authorities there. There was no planning.
SEC'Y CHERTOFF: My understanding is, and again this is something that's going to go back--we're going to go back over after the fact is--the plan that the New Orleans officials and the state officials put together called for the Superdome to be the refuge of last resort. We became aware of the fact at some point that people began to go to the Convention Center on their own, spontaneously, in order to shelter there. And I think it's for that reason that people found themselves without food and water and supplies. The challenge then became...
MR. RUSSERT: Well, Mr. Secretary, you said--hold on. Mr. Secretary, there was no food or water at the Superdome, either. And I want to stay on this because...
SEC'Y CHERTOFF: Well, my understanding--well...
MR. RUSSERT: I want to stay on this because this is very important. You said you were surprised by the levee being broken. In 2002, The Times-Picayune did story after story--and this is eerie; this is what they wrote and how they predicted what was going to happen. It said, and I'll read it very carefully: "...A major hurricane could decimate the region, but flooding from even a moderate storm could kill thousands. It's just a matter of time. ... The scene's been played out for years in computer models or emergency operations simulations... New Orleans has hurricane levees that create a bowl with the bottom dipping lower than the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain. ...the levees would trap any water that gets inside-- by breach, overtopping or torrential downpour--catastrophic storm. ... The estimated 200,000 or more people left behind in an evacuation will be struggling to survive. Some will be housed at the Superdome, the designated shelter for people too sick or inform to leave the city. ...But many will simply be on their own, in homes or looking for high ground. Thousands will drown while trapped in homes or cars by rising water. Other will be washed away or crushed by debris. Survivors will end up trapped on roofs, in buildings or on high ground surrounded by water, with no means of escape and little food or fresh water, perhaps for several days."
That was four years ago. And last summer FEMA, who reports to you, and the LSU Hurricane Center, and local and state officials did a simulated Hurricane Pam in which the levees broke. The levees broke, Mr. Secretary, and people--thousands...
SEC'Y CHERTOFF: Actually, Tim, that...
MR. RUSSERT: Thousands drowned.
SEC'Y CHERTOFF: Tim, I had...
MR. RUSSERT: There's a CD which is in your department and the White House has it and the president, and you are saying, "We were surprised that the levees may not hold." How could this be?
SEC'Y CHERTOFF: No, Tim, I have to tell you, that's not what I said. You have to listen to what I said. What I said was not that we didn't anticipate that there's a possibility the levees will break. What I said is in this storm, what happened is the storm passed and passed without the levees breaking on Monday. Tuesday morning, I opened newspapers and saw headlines that said "New Orleans Dodged The Bullet," which surprised people. What surprised them was that the levee broke overnight and the next day and, in fact, collapsed. That was a surprise.
As to the larger point, there's no question that people have known for probably decades that New Orleans sits in a bowl surrounded by levees. This is a city built on the coast in an area that has hurricanes in it that is built below sea levels and that is a soup bowl. People have talked for years about, you know, whether it makes sense to have a city like that, how to build the levees. So, of course, that's not a surprise. What caught people by surprise in this instance was the fact that there was a second wave, and that, as The Times-Picayune article makes very clear, creates an almost apocalyptic challenge for rescuers.
The fact of the matter is, there's only really one way to deal with that issue, and that is to get people out first. Once that bowl breaks and that soup bowl fills with water, it is unquestionably the case, as we saw vividly demonstrated, that it's going to be almost impossible to get people out. So there is really only one way to deal with it, and that is to evacuate people in advance.
Michael Brown got on TV in Saturday and he said to people in New Orleans, "Take this seriously. There is a storm coming." On Friday there was discussion about the fact that even though this storm could fall anywhere along the Gulf, people had to be carefully monitoring it. We were watching it on Saturday and Sunday. The president was on a videoconference on Sunday telling us we've got to do everything possible to be prepared. But you know, Tim, at the end of the day, this is the ground truth: The only way to avoid a catastrophic problem in that soup bowl is to have people leave before the hurricane hits. Those who got out are fine. Those who stayed in faced one of the most horrible experiences in their life.
MR. RUSSERT: But that's the point. Those who got out were people with SUVs and automobiles and air fares who could get out. Those who could not get out were the poor who rely on public buses to get out. Your Web site says that your department assumes primary responsibility for a national disaster. If you knew a hurricane 3 storm was coming, why weren't buses, trains, planes, cruise ships, trucks provided on Friday, Saturday, Sunday to evacuate people before the storm?
SEC'Y CHERTOFF: Tim, the way that emergency operations act under the law is the responsibility and the power, the authority, to order an evacuation rests with state and local officials. The federal government comes in and supports those officials. That's why Mike Brown got on TV on Saturday and he told people to start to get out of there.