As the Bush administration finds itself under fire for its slow response to Hurricane Katrina, much of the criticism has focused on a favorite of the Jewish community: Michael Chertoff, head of the Department of Homeland Security.
Political leaders, disaster preparedness experts and reporters are all pointing fingers at Chertoff’s leadership. The criticism became especially harsh when Chertoff was forced to acknowledge last week that it took days for federal officials to learn of the desperate conditions facing the 20,000 people who took refuge at the New Orleans Convention Center.
Chertoff supervises the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its embattled director, Michael Brown. FEMA employees and disaster preparedness experts are blaming the tardy federal response to the tragedy on Chertoff’s and Brown’s lack of emergency management experience.
“Chertoff doesn’t really know disasters, Michael Brown doesn’t really know disasters and apparently they’re not talking to the people that do,” said Michael Lindell, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University. “It’s his responsibility to make sure his organization responds. The Coast Guard did. How could the Coast Guard respond and nothing else happen?”
The torrent of criticism comes just nine months after President Bush was widely hailed — especially in the Jewish community — for tapping Chertoff to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Chertoff, the son of a Conservative rabbi, Gershon Chertoff, was lauded for his toughness in prosecuting Mafiosi and terrorists and for his balanced approach to how anti-terrorism laws affect civil liberties. The Jewish community, to which Chertoff has many ties, greeted his nomination with pride; he is the second Jew to have obtained a Cabinet-level post in the administration.
“When Mike is confirmed by the Senate, the Department of Homeland Security will be led by a practical organizer, a skilled manager and a brilliant thinker,” Bush said.
This week, however, after the Department of Homeland Security’s tardiness in rescuing New Orleans residents from the flooding of Hurricane Katrina left thousands stranded for days without food and water, that praise was ringing hollow. Chertoff found himself facing tough questions from both left-wing and right-wing media outlets.
Chertoff did have some defenders, including Frank Cilluffo, who previously served in the Bush White House as a homeland security adviser. “It’s so much more complicated than everyone’s making it out to be,” Cilluffo said. “The federal response has been quite coordinated. It’s how it interfaces with the state and local.”