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Amid disaster, a failure to communicate

The relationship between the nation's top emergency management official, Michael Brown, and his boss, Michael Chertoff, was so strained in the days after Hurricane Katrina that Chertoff said he's still learning why things went wrong.

Chertoff told a Senate committee Wednesday that he was astonished to hear last week that a disdainful Brown did not use all the resources he could have in the aftermath of one of the worst disasters in U.S. history.

"My perception was at the time Mr. Brown may not have been aware of the capabilities; maybe now (I realize) he didn't want to use them," said Chertoff, who became secretary of Homeland Security a year ago Wednesday.

In August, immediately after Katrina's landfall, it became obvious that the government response to the hurricane was inadequate. Now, more than five months later, lawmakers are learning of a previously unknown fracture between the two top leaders responding to the crisis.

Chertoff and Brown, the ousted director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had disagreed on the agency's changed role in responding to national disasters.

On Wednesday, senators from both parties took turns criticizing Chertoff, blaming him for putting Brown in charge of the Katrina response in the first place and then waiting more than a week before removing him.

"As I look back at all the decisions that you had to make, I can't help but conclude that that was one of your biggest mistakes," said Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican heading the Senate committee investigating the Katrina response.

Chertoff accepted responsibility but insisted he had spent the days "nudging, prodding, poking and ultimately raising my voice" at Brown in several heated conversations, urging him to get help for victims stranded in New Orleans.

"If I had known then what I know now about Mr. Brown's agenda, I would have done something differently," Chertoff said.

Chertoff remaimed stoic as senators castigated him; one suggested the National Guard take over his department. More than half a dozen cameras remained focused on him for three hours in the packed hearing room.

It's "so dysfunctional or nonfunctional, it's frightening," said Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn. "I think you've got a monumental disaster. And I think FEMA is the disaster today, it's an even greater disaster than the disasters it's supposed to be addressing."

The Senate committee will release a report on its findings in the coming weeks. A House committee released a blistering 520-page report on Wednesday, concluding that much of the death and suffering could have been avoided.

Katrina, a Category 3 storm, killed more than 1,300 people, displaced about 2-million people and caused more than $150-billion in damage.

On Wednesday, Chertoff fielded questions about a variety of Katrina problems - from reports that millions of taxpayer dollars were wasted to the housing crisis facing the victims - but many questions came back to Brown. Chertoff was summoned to testify after the committee heard from Brown last week.

Brown said that Chertoff and his Homeland Security predecessor, Tom Ridge, paved the way for Katrina failures by instigating a "cultural clash" between FEMA and the department and by diverting too many resources to fighting terrorism.

Brown had been critical of a Bush administrative move to absorb FEMA into Homeland Security in 2003, giving it the lead position in disaster management with the FEMA director reporting to the department secretary instead of the president.

Chertoff said he knew Brown thought FEMA should retain the role of disaster preparation, but that Brown told him he was willing to work in the new structure.

"We said to him, "Look, we know you are disappointed with the result of this. If you're going to have a problem functioning as the head of FEMA with this, let us know.' It's perfectly credible to say, "I can't go along with this and I want to leave.' If you're going to stay, though, we need to have your full commitment,' " Chertoff said. "He told us he felt he had gotten a fair hearing, he would give us his full commitment."

As Katrina loomed, Brown said he had been in touch with the Coast Guard and Department of Defense, Chertoff said. The day after Katrina hit, Chertoff named him the principal federal official for the response effort.

"Going into the hurricane, both in the words and in the demeanor, Michael Brown gave me no reason to doubt his commitment to work and use all of the assets available to make this response as capable as possible," Chertoff said. "So I had no sense going in that, whatever his personal feelings were, there was going to be a problem."

But Brown was out of touch with Homeland Security in the critical hours after Katrina hit, and Chertoff said he went to bed that night not knowing that the levees in New Orleans had been breached. Brown said he chose to call the White House instead.

"It is staggering to me that a subordinate could be that insubordinate and hide it from you to the degree that he apparently did," said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah.

In the days after Katrina hit, Chertoff said he and Brown had heated conversations in which he urged Brown to get the transportation in place to get people out of New Orleans. But just a few days later, Chertoff said he felt he needed to "take this away and get it done ourselves."

"I believed that problems in actually following (Katrina) were just inherent in the fact that the situation was overwhelming and it was a new plan. I mean, I think it had never been used before," Chertoff said. "I think I heard . . . additional facts which now cause me to believe there may have been a choice not to follow it. But I will tell you that was news to me."

Senators were incredulous that Chertoff did not know Brown was in trouble before then, and asked Chertoff to repeat the timeline again and again.

"It was clear, though, that by Wednesday or Thursday, clear to Americans. . . . It was clear that Brown was in way over his head, way over his head," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

Chertoff did not relieve Brown of his Katrina duties until more than a week later after he went to see Brown and the recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast.

"I'd say that I feel like we've given the Department of Homeland Security and even Secretary Chertoff plenty of time to fix the problems with FEMA and preparedness and emergency response," said Mark Pryor, D-Ark. "And, quite frankly, with all due respect, I don't think that they've done it."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.