A new book comes out next week entitled “Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security” by Wall Street Journal reporters Bobby Block and Christopher Cooper. The WSJ had an article last Thursday that highlights one of the linchpin issues in the response to Katrina: the information flow regarding the breach of the levees in New Orleans. The article describes how the Homeland Security Operations Center became a bottleneck to information rather than a centralized clearinghouse:
…Likewise, Matthew Broderick, the director of the Homeland Security Operations Center, or HSOC, saw no reason for extraordinary action without definitive proof that there was a catastrophe in New Orleans. And his view of what constituted a catastrophe was pivotal: As HSOC commander, he was responsible for giving Mr. Chertoff and the White House virtually all of the ground intelligence they would receive during the disaster.
To Mr. Broderick, the trigger for a heightened response was clear: If the city’s levee system was seriously breached and couldn’t be repaired immediately, it was a catastrophe. Flooding over the levees, by contrast, even if it was severe, was “normal, typical, hurricane background stuff,” he would later tell Senate investigators. “You know, we have floods in Pennsylvania all the time. We have floods in New Jersey all the time. Every time there’s a hurricane, there’s a flood.”
A retired Marine brigadier general with some 30 years of experience, Mr. Broderick was determined that the information he delivered to Mr. Chertoff and the White House be stripped of innuendo and boiled down to only the hardest facts. “One of the jobs of HSOC is to not overreact, not get hysterical and get the facts,” Mr. Broderick told investigators. Under this rubric, he simply didn’t pass on much of the information he collected.
The result is that even though the breach of the levees began on Monday morning (8/29), and there were numerous channels by which this information was reported, it did not make it to the senior decision-makers until late that night (in part because contradictory information was given undue value), and Katrina was not declared an Incident of National Significance (activating the NRP) until the next morning.
Block is one of the top DHS beat reporters, and Cooper came to the WSJ from the Times-Picayune, so I’m expecting the whole book to be a worthwhile read, in terms of synthesizing the narrative of the response to Katrina. I’ll post a full review at some point in the near future.
Update (7/31): Here’s another longer excerpt.