September 09, 2005


Five of eight top Federal Emergency Management Agency officials came to their posts with virtually no experience in handling disasters and now lead an agency whose ranks of seasoned crisis managers have thinned dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

FEMA's top three leaders -- Director Michael D. Brown, Chief of Staff Patrick J. Rhode and Deputy Chief of Staff Brooks D. Altshuler -- arrived with ties to President Bush's 2000 campaign or to the White House advance operation, according to the agency. Two other senior operational jobs are filled by a former Republican lieutenant governor of Nebraska and a U.S. Chamber of Commerce official who was once a political operative.

I have to say I agree with Rod Dreher, who writes:

This is a scandal, a real scandal. How is it possible that four years after 9/11, the president treats a federal agency vital to homeland security as a patronage prize? The main reason I've been a Bush supporter all along is I trusted him (note past tense) on national security -- which, in the age of mass terrorism, means homeland security too. Call me naive, but it's a real blow to learn that political hacks have been running FEMA, of all agencies of the federal government!

Yes. It's not that these guys have campaign ties -- it's that they don't seem to have anything else. What's sad is that if Bush were packing the NEH or NEA with people like that, there'd probably have been an outcry. It's true, of course, that FEMA's record has never been that great, and that the response time here is no worse than it was for Hurricane Andrew. But as Dreher notes, this is post-September 11 so that "no worse than before" is no accomplishment.

UPDATE: Going beyond FEMA, read this post on systemic problems with disaster preparedness:

1. The keystone cops response in New Orleans stems, in part, from a flawed model of how to train for disaster.

Training drills almost never prepare officials for the worst. New Orleans conducted disaster exercises in 2000 and 2004 for hurricanes, but these drills did not include the possibility of a levee failure. In Los Angeles, a major port security exercise, Determined Promise 2004, tested a new mobile radio patch unit that enables different emergency response agencies to talk to each other. Surprise surprise: the system worked well. Of course it did. When everyone knows disaster will begin at noon on Monday, they miraculously remember to bring the right radios and brush up on instructions about how to use them properly. Even worse, not only do many exercises avoid facing truly disastrous scenarios, they define success by how smoothly everything goes. This gives a false sense of comfort, or to use a technical term, it's STUPID. Instead, we need to drill into officials that the right measure of success is how much they learn. If things do not go wrong in a drill, then the exercise was not useful.

Read the whole thing. And note that both of these problems are far more unforgivable than miscues made in the teeth of a disaster like Katrina, because they're mistakes made when there's plenty of time to get things right.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Jeff Goldstein thinks Dreher and I are making mountains out of molehills: "I just want SOMEBODY to point out FEMA’s actual failures instead of using a disputed resume blemishes and a lot of showy handwringing to suggest Brown’s failures." And reader C.J. Burch emails: "Isn't the real question here whether FEMA as it is desgined could do any more than it has done? I'm not defending cronyism, but I'm still not convinced that FEMA could accomplish more given the monumental problems it faced at the state and local level. And for that matter, how different are these men's bona fides from previous FEMA heads? Shouldn't we know that as well?"

I'd be interested to hear that.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Merv Benson emails:

People forget that Katrina is not the first hurricane FEMA has worked under Brown. He handled all four of the hurricanes that hit Florida last year. Since Florida has a competent governor, there was no indication that he was inadequate to the task.

People are overblowing the response to terrorism fear. Al Qaeda can only fantasize about causing the damage Katrina did. What few comments they have made suggest they are somewhat envious of the power of nature. At this point al Qaeda has been reduced to back pack bombs outside of Iraq and in Iraq they are incapable of making a militarily significant attack. Perhaps they wish they had thought of blowing the New Orleans levee, but they are clearly having difficulty getting their troops into the US despite our border problems.

I hope he's right.

MORE: Coyote Blog: "After watching the relief effort over the last couple of days, I am more convinced than ever that part of the problem (but certainly not all of it) with the relief effort is the technocratic top-down 'stay-in-control' focus of its leadership. . . . Unfortunately, I fear that the lessons from this hurricane and its aftermath will be that we need more top-down rules and authority rather than less. It is the technocrats on the sidelines who are most appalled by the screw-ups, and will demand more of whatever next time."