Saturday, September 10, 2005

Katrina Part II: How NOT to prepare for a national disaster


(photo camption) On August 29th, while Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, President Bush took a respite from his vacation to go to Scottsdale, AZ and promote "privatization" of Social Security, the same policy which crippled FEMA's ability to respond to Katrina

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Paula Zahn: “Sir, you're not telling me — you're not telling me that you just learned that the folks at the convention center didn't have food and water until today, are you? You had no idea that they were completely cut off?”

Brown: “Paula, the federal government did not even know about the convention center people until today.”


On August 29th, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, most of America had never heard of lethally inept Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Mike Brown. Certainly few were aware that the man entrusted to run the government agency with responsibility for disaster response had no experience in the field- his prior experience in management was being Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, from which he was “asked to resign” after a spate of lawsuits over alleged supervision failures! What a difference a week makes- by September 9th, only 11 days after Katrina hit, the nation cheered when the Bush Administration finally caved and yanked Brown back to Washington and replaced him with Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad W. Allen.

How did we get stuck with a FEMA director who was so incompetent that he told CNN’s Paula Zahn on live television September 1st that he was unaware that New Orleans residents were stranded in the city’s convention center- even though television and the internet had repeatedly broadcast their plight?

The answer is twofold. First, from the earliest days when they took over the reins of government in 2001, there was a systematic, philosophical decision of the architects of the Bush Administration to privatize government functions wherever possible, and FEMA was not spared the ax.

“April 2001: Budget Director Mitch Daniels announces the Bush administration's goal of privatizing much of FEMA's work. In May, [former FEMA Director Joseph] Allbaugh confirms that FEMA will be downsized: "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program...." he said. "Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level." Washington Monthly online, 9/1/05.

Second, in stark contrast to Bill Clinton, George W. Bush put inexperienced, incompetent cronies in charge of critically important government agencies. When Clinton took office, the head of FEMA appointed by the first George Bush was Wallace Stickney, whose only apparent qualification for the post was that he was a close friend and former next door neighbor of Bush Chief of Staff John Sununu. Clinton replaced Stickney with James Lee Witt, the former Director of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. Witt, who got high marks from Republicans and Democrats alike in his professional handling of disaster relief, was the first FEMA head who came to the position with direct experience in emergency management. On Witt's recommendation, Clinton filled most of the FEMA jobs reserved for political appointees with persons who had previous experience in natural disasters and intergovernmental relations.

Eight years later George W. Bush replaced Witt with Texas crony Joe Allbaugh, who had no experience in disaster management. Brown (Allbaugh’s college roommate) replaced Allbaugh in December of 2002 when Allbaugh decided to form a private company to cash in on upcoming government contracts to rebuild an Iraq that had not yet been reduced to rubble. In short order, Allbaugh and Brown politicized the agency to the point that professional disaster managers were forced out and replaced by incompetent hacks (which may explain ABC News' report that FEMA’s website listed assassination proponent Pat Robertson’s “Operation Blessing” as the #1 conduit for Katrina relief donations):

"Over the past three-and-one-half years, FEMA has gone from being a model agency to being one where funds are being misspent, employee morale has fallen, and our nation's emergency management capability is being eroded. Our professional staff are being systematically replaced by politically connected novices and contractors." Sixteen year FEMA veteran Pleasant Mann, in June 2004 letter to members of Congress warning that the politicization of FEMA was decimating the agency.

Brown’s chief henchmen are no more qualified than he. Daniel A. Craig, director for the Recovery Division of FEMA, is a onetime political fundraiser and campaign adviser who came to FEMA in 2001 from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. FEMA Chief of Staff Patrick J. Rhode and Deputy Chief of Staff Brooks D. Altshuler came from President Bush's 2000 campaign operation.

FEMA was folded into the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002, and its mission was re-prioritized from natural disasters to anti-terrorism efforts. Even so, Americans deserve answers as to how FEMA could have been so unprepared for a disaster which had been anticipated for years- the agency reported in 2001 that a severe storm hitting New Orleans was number one of its top three anticipated disasters (the other two being a terrorist attack on New York City and a San Francisco earthquake). FEMA was caught flatfooted even though Louisiana’s Governor Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency on August 26th- three days before the storm hit, and the scope of the damage was predicted before the storm hit by LSU researchers and (NBC’s Brian Williams reported) by the National Weather Service:

“URGENT - WEATHER MESSAGE
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA
1011 AM CDT SUN AUG 28 2005
...DEVASTATING DAMAGE EXPECTED...

HURRICANE KATRINA...A MOST POWERFUL HURRICANE WITH UNPRECEDENTED STRENGTH...RIVALING THE INTENSITY OF HURRICANE CAMILLE OF 1969.

MOST OF THE AREA WILL BE UNINHABITABLE FOR WEEKS...PERHAPS LONGER.”


Probably nothing better illustrates the incompetence of FEMA than the counties which were declared a state of emergency just prior to the storm hitting. An astute blogger put together a map of the Louisiana counties that President Bush designated in his declaration of emergency; it turned out that the map was upside down- only counties not on the Gulf Coast were designated, while New Orleans and Jefferson Parish were left out.

So it is even more troubling to Americans worried about how our government will respond to another 9-11 type attack that in the days before and after Katrina’s landfall the agency performed so miserably:

“If Hurricane Katrina represented a real-life rehearsal of sorts, the response suggested to many that the nation is not ready to handle a terrorist attack of similar dimensions. ‘This is what the department was supposed to be all about. Instead, it obviously raises very serious, troubling questions about whether the government would be prepared if this were a terrorist attack. It's a devastating indictment of this department's performance four years after 9/11.’“ Clark Ervin, DHS's former inspector general,.

“We've had our first test, and we've failed miserably. We have spent billions of dollars in revenues to try to make our country safe, and we have not made nearly enough progress. With Katrina we had some time to prepare. When it's a nuclear, chemical or biological attack, there will be no warning.” Former representative Timothy J. Roemer (D-Ind.), a member of the 9-11 commission. (both quotes from 9/5/05 Washington Post.)

There were two disasters on the Gulf Coast- the first created by nature (with more than a little help from man), the second was inflicted by the Bush Administration’s criminal negligence in failing the most central of government functions- protecting the lives and health of the people of the country. Why? It’s been said that we get the government we deserve, so one can only conclude that we are suffering our just consequences for entrusting the reins of power to America’s self proclaimed “conservatives” (motto: no wilderness is too pristine to strip mine or drill for oil). Our country is now run by acolytes of Bush advisor Grover Nordquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and the Republican strategist behind the Bush tax cuts targeted for the superwealthy. Nordquist’s agenda calls for the elimination of the Food and Drug Administration, the IRS, and other government agencies, explaining:

“"My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."


Nordquist got his macabre wish partially fulfilled- his privatization policies led to Americans drowning, but not in a bathtub

5 Comments:

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