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Officials rebut Katrina critics

WASHINGTON – The Bush administration on Monday pushed back hard against Katrina-response criticism leveled by ex-disaster agency chief Michael Brown and congressional investigators.

“I reject outright the suggestion that President Bush was anything less than fully involved,” said White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff “unequivocally and strongly” rejected suggestions that his agency was preoccupied with terror threats at the expense of preparing for natural disasters.

Both spoke at a conference of state emergency management directors in suburban Alexandria, Va.

Their rebuttal came as a Republican-written House report blamed governmentwide ineptitude for mishandling Hurricane Katrina relief. A report by Congress’ investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, reached similar conclusions and singled out Chertoff for delays.

Both Townsend and Chertoff took swipes at Brown, who resigned under pressure in September as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“There is no place for a lone ranger in emergency management,” said Chertoff, whose Department of Homeland Security is FEMA’s parent agency.

Brown testified before a Senate committee last week that he issued repeated warnings to the White House and DHS the day the hurricane struck, Aug. 29, that levees had failed and New Orleans was seriously flooding.

He suggested that the White House and DHS had dragged their feet. Bush and other federal officials have said they did not know until the next day, Aug. 30, that levees had been breached.

On Monday, Brown defended his performance.

“For Secretary Chertoff to claim that I failed to keep him informed belies the numerous telephone calls and e-mails between me and him prior to, during and after landfall” of the storm, Brown said in an e-mail to the Associated Press.

Brown also applauded congressional investigations into the government’s response.

Townsend, without naming names, criticized those at FEMA she said had “become bitter” and lashed out “trying to find someone else, anyone else, to blame.”

“We cannot attempt to rewrite history by pointing fingers or laying blame.” While both Chertoff and Townsend acknowledged that the federal response left much to be desired, both suggested federal officials up to Bush had been unfairly criticized.

Bush, who was traveling in Arizona and California the day the storm roared ashore, was “highly engaged” in monitoring its advance, Townsend said.

And she said it was Bush himself who first conceded several days after the storm – one of the nation’s worst natural disasters – that “the response to the hurricane was insufficient.”


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