12 September 2005

The FEMA Director: now let's begin analyzing the Blame gain, fact vs. spin.

The FEMA Director, Michael Brown:
  • As flames blazed 400 miles away in New Orleans on Labor Day, about 600 fire fighters from across the nation sat in an Atlanta hotel listening to a FEMA lecture on equal opportunity, sexual harassment and customer service.
  • "Your job is going to be community relations," a FEMA official told them, according to Joe Calhoun, an assistant fire chief from Portage, Ind., who was there. "You'll be passing out FEMA pamphlets and our phone number."
  • The room, filled with many fire fighters who, at FEMA's request had arrived equipped with rescue gear, erupted in anger. "This is ridiculous," one yelled back. "Our fire departments and mayors sent us down here to save people, and you've got us doing this?"
    A FEMA official climbed atop a chair and tried to restore order. "You are now employees of FEMA, and you will follow orders and do what you're told," he said, sounding more like the leader of an invading army than a rescue squad.
  • The scene in Atlanta was one of the many ways FEMA failed to live up to Katrina's challenge. First, despite being warned by multiple hurricane experts that Katrina would be a catastrophic hurricane, Brown waited until about five hours after the storm's landfall before he proposed sending just 1,000 federal workers to deal with the aftermath.
  • While people were dying in New Orleans, the U.S.S. Bataan steamed offshore, its six operating rooms, beds for 600 patients and most of its 1,200 sailors idle. Foreign nations -- responding to urgent calls from Washington -- readied rescue supplies, then were told to stand by for days until FEMA could figure out what to do with them.
  • Florida airboaters complained that they had an armada ready for rescue work but FEMA wouldn't let them into New Orleans.
  • Another FEMA fiasco: as the Red Cross began distributing its own debit cards at different locations, thousands stood for hours in the 93° heat outside the Astrodome in Houston for FEMA cards that never came and were promised. A day earlier, Brown had heralded his agency's cards as a way to "empower" survivors "to start rebuilding their lives."
  • For many disaster experts, FEMA's feeble response, just like the massive hurricane that triggered it, was woefully predictable. President Bush began emasculating the agency soon after taking office. Jane Bullock, a 22-year FEMA veteran who ended up as the agency's chief of staff during the Clinton Administration, says she sensed the incoming Administration's disdain during her first post-election meeting with members of Bush's FEMA transition team. Joe Allbaugh, Bush's first FEMA chief, labeled federal disaster aid "an oversized entitlement program" four months before 9/11.
  • A parking lot for political allies since its creation in 1979, FEMA had greatly improved under the stewardship of Witt during the Clinton years. Staffed by disaster experts, it won bipartisan praise. Even Bush II lauded Witt during a debate with Al Gore in 2000 for FEMA's skill at coordinating the resources Washington can bring to a disaster zone when adversity overwhelms local efforts. But the agency's highest ranks began to fill with political chums again once Bush took over. Brown and FEMA's other two top officials have ties to Bush's 2000 campaign or to the White House's advance office, whose primary mission is making the President look good. None had disaster experience.
  • TIME.com reported last week that Brown padded his own public résumé by, among other things, claiming to have been a manager of emergency services in Edmond, Okla., when he was actually "an intern," according to a city official.
  • DHS finally swallowed FEMA whole and had it report to DHS not the President. Two months ago, DHS chief Michael Chertoff proposed that FEMA only respond to disasters, not prepare for them.
  • Back in Atlanta, fire fighters got tired of hanging around their hotel and have returned home.
  • Michael Brown, the inept Director, was finally relieved of his duties, sent back to Washington, and finally let go. Reportedly this is his third job that he has been asked to leave or was fired. And, sadly, he had the President' confidence.

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