Why FEMA Failed the Gulf Coast

The failure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to manage the emergency along the Gulf Coast is an indictment of the Bush administration. FEMA became a perfect illustration of the Bush team’s “philosophy” of government–privatize essential functions; hand out jobs and contracts to political cronies, no matter how incompetent; and blame others for the resulting failure.

“I look at FEMA, and I shake my head,” Republican Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney told the Boston Herald. FEMA’s response was “an embarrassment,” he added.

If the likes of Romney could see this, the main reason was the shocking cluelessness of FEMA Director Michael Brown and his boss, Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff.

On September 1, Brown told CNN’s Paula Zahn that he wasn’t aware of the desperate conditions of thousands at the New Orleans Convention Center–despite the fact that news programs had documented the situation on live television all day. Chertoff initially brushed off reports of the convention center disaster as “rumors.”

No wonder the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper called for the firing of Brown and the entire FEMA senior management in its September 4 “open letter” to President Bush. Instead, in a photo op, Bush told the FEMA chief, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

The disaster at FEMA didn’t start in August. It started in 2001, when Bush put his long-time political crony, Joseph Allbaugh, in charge of the agency.

President Jimmy Carter created the agency in 1979. For most of the first decade of its existence, it served as a resting place for political patronage appointees who stayed out of the media limelight.

It briefly received some notoriety when the 1987 congressional hearings into the Iran-contra scandal disclosed that the Reagan administration had tasked FEMA with devising a “continuity of government” plan–in essence, a plan to rule the U.S. under martial law–in the event of a nuclear attack.

After the Cold War ended, the agency shifted more to focusing on coordinating federal responses to natural disasters. But under Bush Sr.’s administration, it remained directionless. FEMA’s inadequate response to the 1992 Hurricane Andrew, which leveled large tracts of South Florida, added to the unpopularity of the Bush’s administration that led to the election of Democrat Bill Clinton.

Under Clinton-appointed FEMA director James Lee Witt, the agency acquired at least a sense of competence in dealing with disasters. Clinton made it a Cabinet-level agency. In the highly polarized environment of Clinton-era Washington, the performance of Witt and FEMA was one of the few things that garnered praise from both Republicans and Democrats.

“Witt shaped [FEMA] into an organization that was not only to respond to disaster but attempt to mitigate disaster by taking actions before they occurred,” University of Maryland disaster expert Michael Greenberger told the New York Times. FEMA set up programs with all 50 states to identify potential disaster areas and provide federal aid to move people and property out of harm’s way before a disaster struck.

When the Bush administration arrived, it decided to reverse these plans. Allbaugh–who, with Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, formed the troika of political operatives who handled Bush’s governorship in Texas–denounced the FEMA mitigation program as “an oversized entitlement program” that he was determined to abolish.

Bush downgraded FEMA and made disaster relief a state and local responsibility. At the same time, the administration moved to privatize and outsource all of FEMA’s main functions. FEMA departments now had to compete with private-sector contractors for their jobs.

This created a “consultant culture” that crippled FEMA’s effectiveness, Georgia State University disaster expert William Waugh told the Durham, N.C., Independent. “Governments can’t do things because they’ve given up those capabilities to the private sector. And private corporations don’t necessarily maintain those capabilities.”

FEMA once again became a dumping ground for Republican political hacks. “Allbaugh? He was inept,” Claire Rubin, a George Washington University researcher on disaster told the Independent. “He was chief of staff for Bush in Texas–that was his credential. He didn’t have an emergency management background, other than the disasters he ran into in Texas, and he wasn’t a very open guy. He didn’t want to learn anything.”

After putting in time wrecking FEMA, Allbaugh departed in 2002 for more lucrative pursuits–forming two consulting firms aimed at helping U.S. firms win contracts in the soon-to-be invaded Iraq.

After the September 11 attacks, FEMA was folded into the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and its emphasis shifted to counter-terrorism. Three-quarters of federal grants doled out under DHS and FEMA since then have focused on counter-terrorism.

So instead of preparing responses to known threats to “homeland security”–namely floods, hurricanes and other disasters–DHS and FEMA emphasized preparations for the far less likely threats of dirty bombs and biological weapons. While it was scheduling high-profile media events intended to demonstrate “readiness” to deal with terrorism, FEMA was forced to cancel disaster drills dealing with fires and floods.

The new emphasis on counter-terrorism created an exodus from the agency of its most skilled personnel. “The biggest frustration here is that we at FEMA have responded to disasters like Oklahoma City and 9/11, and here are people who haven’t responded to a kitchen fire telling us how to deal with terrorism,” said Pleasant Mann, former president of the union representing FEMA employees. “You know there were a lot of people who fell down on the job on 9/11, but it wasn’t us.”

In fact, an early 2001 FEMA report predicted that the three most likely serious disasters to hit the U.S. would be a terrorist attack on New York, a major earthquake in San Francisco, and the one FEMA considered the most potentially catastrophic–a hurricane and flood in New Orleans.

This makes Brown, Chertoff and FEMA look not just incompetent, but criminal.

A confederacy of dunces

BEFORE RESPONDING to his college buddy Joe Allbaugh’s request to join FEMA in 2001, current FEMA Director Michael Brown sharpened his skills in disaster management as attorney for the International Arabian Horse Association IAHA.

“We do disciplinary actions, certification of (show trial) judges,” a spokeswoman for the IAHA commissioner’s office told the Boston Herald. “We hold classes to train people to become judges and stewards. And we keep records.”

Although Brown performed this sort of work for 11 years full time, he apparently created more disasters than he prevented. Lawsuits against the organization alleging failures in Brown’s supervision piled up until the association fired Brown. “He was asked to resign,” Bill Pennington, president of the IAHA at the time, confirmed to the Herald.
Brown spent two years as FEMA general counsel before taking Allbaugh’s spot when Allbaugh left the agency.

During the Hurricane Katrina disaster, the man who took over Brown’s position as general counsel, Michael Wallace, was on vacation in Greece–getting married to White House communications advisor Nicolle Devenish, according to reports in the New York Times. Apparently, Wallace has as much experience in disaster management as Brown does. He got his start in politics as Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s driver in 1994.

LANCE SELFA writes for the Socialist Worker.