Last night on the PBS Newshour, Gwen Ifill asked Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff what were the major problems that caused the administration to react so poorly to Hurricane Katrina. Chertoff answered:
The second thing was a lack of awareness of what was going on, on the ground. Now I was a decision-maker. And I was constantly struggling to get an accurate picture of what the circumstances were in New Orleans. Part of that was a lack of communications equipment.
Newsweek reveals one reason why Chertoff was struggling to get proper information about the scope of Katrina’s devastation:
Congressional investigations of government responses to Hurricane Katrina have revealed that two of the nation’s key crisis managers, the secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security, do not use e-mail. … The House committee established to investigate Katrina was “informed that neither Secretary Chertoff nor Secretary Rumsfeld use e-mail,” reported Reps. Charlie Melancon and William Jefferson.
In an age of blackberries, instant messaging, and other forms of instant communication, it’s embarrassing that our senior political leaders are not taking advantage of these technological advancements to literally save people’s lives.
Chertoff testified yesterday that DHS is instituting changes to prevent another Katrina: “We are acquiring more satellite equipment and more communications equipment to be able to deploy to our state and local emergency operators so they can communicate with us.” What good does it do if people on the ground have the best communications equipment but the decision-maker isn’t getting their communications? Rumsfeld and Chertoff need to step into the 21st century and experience all the wonders of the internets.
UPDATE: We’ve created a dramatic reenactment of what a FEMA official on the ground would have experienced when trying to email Secretary Chertoff during Hurricane Katrina: