20 September 2005

Whistle blower warned the administration a year ago about Brown

A disturbing view from inside FEMA...Worker: Decision-makers lack disaster experience

As Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast three weeks ago, veteran workers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency braced for an epic disaster.

But their bosses, political appointees with almost no emergency management experience, didn't seem to share the sense of urgency, a FEMA veteran said.

"We told these fellows that there was a killer hurricane heading right toward New Orleans," Leo Bosner, a 26-year FEMA employee and union leader told CNN. "We had done our job, but they didn't do theirs."

Bosner's storm warning came three days before Hurricane Katrina came ashore in eastern Louisiana.

"New Orleans is of particular concern because much of that city lies below sea level," he warned in his daily alert to Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, then-FEMA chief Michael Brown and other Bush administration officials in the White House, but on one paid attention.

"If the hurricane winds blow from a certain direction, there are dire predictions of what may happen in the city," it said.

The agency's failure is a tragic element of the Hurricane Katrina story. But, according to Bosner, FEMA's troubles came as no surprise after its role and stature shifted when federal agencies were reshuffled in response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

A longtime union leader, Bosner has been a whistle-blower before.

A year ago he raised concerns that Brown was in over his head.

"I have nothing personal against Mike Brown," Bosner told CNN. "I feel badly about the guy. But he took a job he was never trained for. The man was a lawyer."

FEMA, formerly an independent agency led by a Cabinet-level official, was among the 22 federal agencies shuffled into the Department of Homeland Security. Brown was an undersecretary who answered to the secretary of Homeland Security.

Chertoff and Brown both have legal backgrounds but no emergency management experience.

Brown came to work for FEMA in 2001 as legal counsel to his college friend, then-FEMA director Joe Allbaugh, who was Bush's 2000 campaign manager. Brown assumed the top job when Allbaugh left FEMA in 2003.

Chertoff worked from home the day Bosner first warned of the hurricane's catastrophic potential for New Orleans, CNN's Tom Foreman reported. Chertoff also has been criticized for writing a memo the day after Katrina struck, delegating authority to Brown and deferring to the White House rather than taking charge.

Committees in the House and Senate are looking into FEMA and the government's flawed response, and officials are clamoring for reform. Former President Bill Clinton, who revamped FEMA during his administration, is among them.

Clinton, and a national group of state disaster officials, say anyone who heads FEMA should be required to have emergency management credentials. Clinton added that the FEMA chief should also answer to the president.

Bosner wrote a memo in 1992 that raised red flags about FEMA and helped lead to excellent reform during the Clinton administration.

"FEMA's biggest problem is that too few people at the top in the agency are trained to help in emergencies," he wrote. "We have good soldiers but crummy generals."

For the rest of the 1990s, FEMA greatly improved under Clinton, Bosner said. But since 2001 the agency has again become demoralized and experienced disaster experts have left en masse.

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