Washington Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Friday he is worried the Gulf Coast may not be ready to withstand another major storm as it struggles to recover from Hurricane Katrina.
Less than 100 days before the start of the next hurricane season on June 1, Chertoff said his department is working now with state and local officials to develop plans for evacuations and other emergency response priorities.
But with so much of Louisiana and Mississippi still under reconstruction with partly rebuilt homes and numerous house trailers, "I personally am very concerned," he said.
"I can't tell you when the next hurricane is going to come, or where it's going to come, but I can envision a scenario in which it will head into a partly reconstructed area that will be vulnerable," Chertoff told reporters.
The Bush administration has approved spending $3 billion to rebuild New Orleans' levees to a strength sufficient to withstand a storm as strong as Katrina. About 80 percent of the city was flooded when water surged through the levees in some spots after the hurricane struck Aug. 29. The Army Corps of Engineers has set a goal of repairing them by June 1.
Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, left more than 1,300 people dead, hundreds of thousands homeless and tens of billions of dollars worth of damage in its wake.
Chertoff's comments came a day after a White House report singled out his agency for numerous failures to quickly respond to Katrina. The study also suggested putting the Pentagon in charge of the federal response in some worst-case scenario disasters - currently a Homeland Security responsibility.
In an interview later with The Associated Press, Chertoff said putting the Pentagon in charge would not happen in a storm the size of Katrina. He has called that hurricane "a disaster on top of a disaster" because of its devastating winds and massive flooding caused by levee breaches.
"It would be incorrect to say that if there was another Katrina, we would go to, 'DoD runs the whole thing,"' Chertoff said, referring to the Department of Defense. "I think it would have to be something considerably further along in the spectrum where even the federal government's ability was overwhelmed."