WASHINGTON - The top U.S. disaster official waited hours after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast before he proposed to his boss sending at least 1,000 Homeland Security workers into the region to support rescuers, internal documents show.
Part of the mission, according to the documents obtained by The Associated Press, was to "convey a positive image" about the government's response for victims.
Acknowledging that such a move would take two days, Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, sought the approval from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff roughly five hours after Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29.
Before then, FEMA had positioned smaller rescue and communications teams across the Gulf Coast. But officials acknowledged the first department-wide appeal for help came only as the storm raged.
Brown's memo to Chertoff described Katrina as "this near catastrophic event" but otherwise lacked any urgent language. The memo politely ended, "Thank you for your consideration in helping us to meet our responsibilities."
The initial responses of the government and Brown came under escalating criticism as the breadth of destruction and death grew. President Bush and Congress on Tuesday pledged separate investigations into the federal response to Katrina. "Governments at all levels failed," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said Brown had positioned front-line rescue teams and Coast Guard helicopters before the storm. Brown's memo on Aug. 29 aimed to assemble the necessary federal work force to support the rescues, establish communications, and coordinate with victims and community groups, Knocke said.
Instead of rescuing people or recovering bodies, these employees would focus on helping victims find the help they needed, he said.
"There will be plenty of time to assess what worked and what didn't work," Knocke said. "Clearly there will be time for blame to be assigned and to learn from some of the successful efforts."
Brown's memo told employees that among their duties, they would be expected to "convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials, community organizations and the general public."
"FEMA response and recovery operations are a top priority of the department and as we know, one of yours," Brown wrote Chertoff. He proposed sending 1,000 Homeland Security Department employees within 48 hours and 2,000 within seven days.
Knocke said the 48-hour period indicated for the Homeland employees was to ensure they had adequate training. "They were training to help the lifesavers," Knocke said.
Employees required a supervisor's approval and at least 24 hours of disaster training in Maryland, Florida or Georgia. "You must be physically able to work in a disaster area without refrigeration for medications and have the ability to work in the outdoors all day," Brown wrote.
The same day Brown wrote Chertoff, Brown also urged local fire and rescue departments outside Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi not to send trucks or emergency workers into disaster areas without an explicit request for help from state or local governments. Brown said it was vital to coordinate fire and rescue efforts.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said Tuesday that Brown should resign.
After a senators-only briefing by Chertoff and other Cabinet members, Sen. Charles Schumer said lawmakers weren't getting their questions answered.
"What people up there want to know, Democrats and Republicans, is what is the challenge ahead, how are you handling that and what did you do wrong in the past," said Schumer, D-N.Y.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, appearing Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America," renewed her call for an independent commission to investigate the federal response, saying neither Congress nor the administration should do it.
At the same time, she accused the administration of ignoring needs at home.
"The priority of this administration, at least domestically, has been tax cuts," she said. "We need to put the American people first. We need to be taking care of the needs that we have to fix the infrastructure. We need to be having spending priorities that will protect our country."
She, too, called for Brown's resignation, telling CBS's "The Early Show" that she "would have never appointed such a person" and saying that Bush should have picked someone with more experience.
Meanwhile, the airline industry said the government's request for help evacuating storm victims didn't come until late Thursday afternoon. The president of the Air Transport Association, James May, said the Homeland Security Department called then to ask whether the group could participate in an airlift for refugees.