Committee Chairman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Ranking Member Joseph Lieberman, D-Ct., held the hearings to examine the department's actions in dealing with Hurricane Katrina.
Chertoff began by saying, "Any discussion of Katrina must first begin by addressing the sheer magnitude of the challenge. Katrina was quite clearly one of the most destructive natural disasters to strike American soil."
Calling Hurricane Katrina "the 100-year storm "we all feared," Chertoff added that the events surrounding the storm "revealed what I told this committee in July – that we are not where we need to be in our ability to manage catastrophic events. As a result, we need to make sure we are building critical capabilities in the short and long term that will allow us to effectively respond to ultra-catastrophic events as well as more common dangers we face."
The senators pointed out that the mission statement of DHS includes, "preparing for natural disasters and terrorist attacks through planning, technology and coordinated efforts. In the event of a natural or man-made disaster, DHS will be the first federal department to utilize a full range of state, local and private partnerships to alleviate the effects of a potential disaster."
The hearing focused on problems such as the federal government's lack of preparedness for Hurricane Katrina, what members of the committee view as inadequate leadership by DHS and FEMA officials, poor communications and situational awareness, and delays in the delivery of appropriate emergency aid and supplies to victims.
"The federal department that was supposed to lead, direct, and coordinate the federal response to Katrina was, time and again, late, uncertain and ineffective," said Collins. "If DHS failed so utterly in preparing for and responding to a disaster that was long predicted and imminent for days, we must wonder how much more profound the failure would be if a disaster were to take us completely by surprise, such as a terrorist attack."
Lieberman pointed out that Chertoff, as head of the Department of Homeland Security, had a responsibility to lead the federal government's preparations for and response to Hurricane Katrina. "Instead," said Lieberman, "his failures let the nation down and increased the suffering that Katrina caused."
The hearing was the 20th in a series of hearings that are part of the committee's investigation into the government's preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina. Collins and Lieberman expect to release a committee report on their investigation by the middle of March.