WASHINGTON -- For the first time, a nonpartisan government investigation has put principal blame on Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, not lower-level officials, for the fumbled response to Hurricane Katrina.
The Government Accountability Office, an independent investigative agency of Congress, said in its preliminary report yesterday that Chertoff had failed to move quickly to mobilize resources despite advance warnings that Katrina was likely to be a devastating storm.
And, the report said, Chertoff's failure to name a single individual to spearhead the response was a prime factor in the delays and confusion that followed.
Until now, Chertoff has not been a target of direct criticism, though the Federal Emergency Management Agency and most other federal units responsible for responding to Katrina are under his jurisdiction.
In particular, the GAO faulted Chertoff for not immediately designating Katrina as a "catastrophic event," a technical step that would have permitted federal officials to be proactive and take the initiative in dealing with the emergency.
Lacking that designation from Chertoff, federal agencies had to wait for state and local agencies to request specific kinds of assistance, said David M. Walker, who as comptroller general heads the GAO.
The magnitude of the disaster overwhelmed local agencies and such requests were slow in coming and often uncoordinated.
Also, Walker said in a news conference releasing the report, the lack of a single federal decision-maker at the top meant there were "way too many layers, way too many players, way too many pieces of turf."
Homeland Security press secretary William Knocke criticized the report as "premature and unprofessional," saying that "catastrophic event" declarations are reserved for disasters where federal officials have not had much warning or time to pre-position supplies.
The GAO is continuing its investigation and is expected to issue a final report, including a response from Chertoff, later this year. But its initial findings were sharply critical.
The department that Chertoff has headed since early 2005 was assembled after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks from 22 separate agencies and made responsible for border security, emergency response and other functions considered part of homeland security.
In the GAO report, the first by an independent agency, Walker criticized all levels of government for failure to prepare and abide by disaster plans.
"Unfortunately, many of the lessons emerging from the most recent hurricanes in the Gulf are similar to those GAO identified more than a decade ago," after Hurricane Andrew, he said.
"In 1993 we recommended that the president designate a senior official in the White House to oversee federal preparedness for, and response to, major catastrophic disasters."
The GAO said that Chertoff failed to establish a clear chain of command. "Neither the DHS secretary nor any of his designees filled this leadership role during Hurricane Katrina, which serves to underscore the immaturity of and weaknesses" of federal disaster coordination, it said.
"In the absence of timely and decisive action and clear leadership responsibility and accountability, there were multiple chains of command, a myriad of approaches and processes for requesting and providing assistance, and confusion about who should be advised of requests," he said.
In the days and weeks after the hurricane, local, state and federal officials each did their best to deflect blame for all that went wrong in responding to the disaster.
Former FEMA Director Michael D. Brown - who reported to Chertoff - was initially praised by President Bush for his handling of the federal government's response. But later he resigned after reports of his agency's failings led to a storm of criticism.
In congressional testimony in October, Chertoff said shortcomings in FEMA's planning, not the failures of state and local officials, were to blame for much of what went wrong with the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.
Walker, who said the devastation in some parts of the Mississippi Gulf Coast rivaled that of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, praised the military's role in responding to the crisis. The Pentagon's resources, his report said, "should be an explicit part of future major catastrophic disaster plans."
Meantime, the New Orleans mayor gave a vivid example of the problem in testimony yesterday before a Senate committee chaired by Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is holding hearings on Katrina, pressed Nagin on why - in thousands of pages of documents reviewed by committee investigators - there is no request from his office for food and water to relieve the suffering of evacuees at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
"We had people trapped on roofs, et cetera, and they didn't know about it?" Nagin replied. "That's just impossible."
The House and Senate hearings on Katrina have been hobbled by controversy. House Democrats, urging an independent inquiry similar to that of the 9/11 Commission, are boycotting the House effort, though Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia pledged to "follow the facts wherever they go."
"The theory of putting FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security was that you would have the resources of the whole department," said Davis, who appeared at the news conference with the GAO's Walker.
"In Katrina, FEMA needed the resources of the whole government They needed access to the top. It's not clear with the individuals involved that they could pick up the phone and get the White House."
On the Senate side, weeklong hearings continue today with testimony from the governors of the Gulf Coast states. Committee Republicans have tended to emphasize the failings of state officials in the hurricane's aftermath, while Democrats have focused on the federal government's lapses.
Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.