Friday, September 02, 2005
FEMA. It's time to point the finger
QUESTIONER: Scott, I know the President obviously is focused on response efforts right now, but can I talk to you about preparedness? Is the President satisfied with the way assets were pre-positioned, specifically in those areas like New Orleans and Mississippi, New Orleans particularly, a place that was identified by the Red Cross as being particularly vulnerable because of its geographical location. Is the President satisfied?
MR. McCLELLAN: One thing that I think is important to keep in mind at this time, this is the immediate aftermath of a major catastrophe. This is a time when the whole country needs to come together to help those in the region. And that's where our focus is. This is not a time to get into any finger pointing or politics or anything of that nature.
QUESTIONER: Scott, there's already a line of discussion going on about the funding of projects prior to this, whether projects in New Orleans, in particular, were under funded because of the Iraq war or for other reasons. Is there a -- do you find any of this criticism legitimate? Do you think there is any second-guessing to be done now about priorities, given that the New Orleans situation was sort of obvious to a lot of the experts?
MR. McCLELLAN: As I indicated, this is not a time for politics. This is a time for the nation to come together and help those in the Gulf Coast region. And that's where our focus is. This is not a time for finger-pointing or playing politics.
The White House never likes to see finger-pointing unless it's done by the White House finger. Yet I probably wouldn't be writing this post if I hadn't caught Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff and FEMA Director Mike Brown1 on TV last night lying like psychopaths as to why they weren't better prepared.
Consider FEMA's task. According to the web page recounting their history,2 FEMA is "tasked with responding to, planning for, recovering from and mitigating against disasters." Viewed against the background of Hurricane Katrina, the utter failure of the agency is evident.
Why did FEMA prepare for the unknown risk rather than for the known risk?
A clue to FEMA's problem may be found on the same web page—
Billions of dollars of new funding were directed to FEMA to help communities face the threat of terrorism. Just a few years past its 20th anniversary, FEMA was actively directing its "all-hazards" approach to disasters toward homeland security issues. In March 2003, FEMA joined 22 other federal agencies, programs and offices in becoming the Department of Homeland Security [DHS].... Today, FEMA is one of four major branches of DHS. About 2,500 full-time employees in the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate are supplemented by more than 5,000 stand-by disaster reservists.
You may recall from yesterday's post ("Just how stupid are they?") that in 2001 FEMA "issued a report stating that a hurricane striking New Orleans was one of the three most likely disasters in the U.S., including a terrorist attack on New York City." So the threat of a hurricane to New Orleans was very well known. I had heard of it; Louisiana politicians knew of it; and even FEMA had a clue.
So why did FEMA not follow their mandate to plan for, mitigate against, respond to, and recover from such a disaster? I can tell you in one sentence: IT WOULDN'T HAVE HELPED TO PROMOTE GEORGE BUSH.
With FEMA tucked into the Department of Homeland Security under Michael Chertoff, terrorism became sexy. The mandated functions of FEMA—like every other agency of the administration—were co-opted to serve the promotion and re-election of George. And when you think of George Bush, you naturally think of terrorism, not hurricanes. Or to put it another way, it became the function of FEMA to keep you thinking of terrorism rather than hurricanes, because it was well established that public support for George went up every time the threat of terrorism was mentioned.
Protecting us against terrorism?
As for terrorism, the DHS itself—and thus FEMA—has become another hog-waller for the administration's own pork-barrel spending. Vice President Cheney's state of Wyoming has become perhaps the best protected state in the nation against terrorism. But woe unto those who live in a blue-state port city.
Of course, FEMA's preparedness for a terrorist attack is actually unknown, since there hasn't been a terrorist attack against which to measure their response. But you don't need to be a bureaucrat-genius to realize that much of the planning and preparation for hurricane survival is not different from that needed in the event of a terrorist attack.
Without charging you the normal fee of several million dollars to do a "study," let me suggest a few issues common to hurricanes and terrorist attacks that FEMA should have addressed—
- A secure and reliable means of communications must be in place for all emergency responders—political leaders, police, health workers and military.
- Stockpiles of water, food and medicines must be kept in readiness.
- Emergency-needs centers (and alternates) should be established in advance.
- Means of transport of emergency supplies should be determined and provided for in advance.
- Plans to transport and house hundreds of thousands of refugees should be in place.
I could go on, but it wouldn't be fair to leave FEMA's 2500 employees with nothing to think about in the future. You can readily see that measured by the fulfillment of these minimal requirements, FEMA was not—is not—prepared for a terrorist attack.
What's FEMA's excuse for the poor response?
Here's what Chertoff and Brown are offering—
- This hurricane disaster was unique because the levees broke.
- The victims are to blame for not leaving when ordered.
- FEMA had to hold back to protect the relief workers.
- They didn't anticipate the breakdown of communications.
But I know you want to hear it from Director Brown himself. He was interviewed last night on PBS by Jim Lehrer:
1. The disaster was unique
Brown: It has been very unusual in my history as an emergency manager and an official of this government that what we see is we've had a disaster, even unlike hurricanes in the past, continued long after the hurricane made landfall.
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall you had what I would call the typical, you know, disaster of the wind damage, and the storm and the rain and power outages. And then it became even worse because the levees began to break, and suddenly we had a major American city, New Orleans, completely inundated by floodwaters.
Only one way will do to describe this performance—This man is a lying sack of shit.
Here he is trying to pretend that the "normal" hurricane disaster results from wind, storm (whatever that means), rain and power outages. But the National Hurricane Center, another federal enterprise, says in bold at the top of its web page,
"The greatest potential for loss of life related to a hurricane is from the storm surge." - Brian Jarvinen, National Hurricane CenterHe might also have wanted to read Mark Fischetti's "Drowning New Orleans" in the October 2001 issue of Scientific American.
Now this asshole is talking as if the storm surge and broken levees were a surprise that FEMA could not have anticipated. Perhaps they were too busy preparing for martial law in the event of a terrorist attack.
2. The victims are to blame for not leaving when ordered to evacuate.
BROWN: And on top of that, even though there were mandatory evacuations and voluntary evacuations called for, literally hundreds of thousands of people for whatever reasons— I'm not going to second guess - but for whatever reasons —chose or could not evacuate.
And now we're having to evacuate those people after the storm and get relief efforts to them just as rapidly and as efficiently as we can.
Since Mr. Brown doesn't want to second-guess the reasons why so many did not evacuate, as FEMA Director he should have considered it beforehand. Do we need to tell this idiot that poor people in urban areas don't own cars?
If the government is now paying to evacuate "those people" after the disaster, wouldn't it have made more sense to evacuate them beforehand? As usual, for the poor it's every man for himself, and many in New Orleans seem to have responded in kind. While the media are aghast at the looting, they say nothing of the decisions that essentially left these people to die.
3. FEMA had to hold back to protect the relief workers.
LEHRER: Mr. Brown, I'm sure you're aware that there have been enormous complaints today from the people affected, up to the officials in New Orleans, the disaster director of New Orleans in fact called the federal effort that you are in charge of a national disgrace because it's moving so slowly, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. How do you respond to that?
BROWN: Well, I understand his frustration. You know, if I were in his shoes, I'd be very, very frustrated, too. But what the American public needs to know is that we have brought to bear the full resources of the federal government.
What we cannot do, and what we did not do immediately after the storm passed and as the levees were breaking, was to be able to bring in rescue workers and urban search-and-rescue teams and the medical teams because they themselves would have then become disaster victims. So we had to come in very carefully and very methodically. And it frustrated me, too because I would rather just have charged in there and done everything we could have.
FEMA couldn't bring the rescue workers in because they had made no preparation for this catastrophic event. In disaster after disaster rescue workers have taken great risks to themselves to help the victims. Why was this different?
4. They didn't anticipate the breakdown of communications.
JIM LEHRER: Peter Slevin of the Washington Post .... spent all day there, and he said the most striking thing that he has seen is there seems to be nobody in charge. There's no information being disseminated to the victims of this, and people are in a state of panic. What's the problem, Mr. Brown?
MIKE BROWN: Well, we're -- first of all, it's amazing to me how much communications have been broken down. There literally is no communications within the city of New Orleans. The cell towers are down. It's difficult even to use the satellite phones and to make the communications with those like we normally do.
We're working very closely with Mayor Nagin to be able to communicate with him. We've taken Army helicopters and moved into the Baton battleship, a command post that he can use so that he can communicate with his people.
But he's one mayor trying to communicate to all of those people without a telephone, without a way to distribute a newspaper or anything else. So we're trying to give him all the resources we can to communicate to his citizens.
So FEMA couldn't anticipate a communications failure? Didn't plan a secure communications system?
Would the situation have been different in a massive "terrorist" attack? No. Quite likely it would have been worse, since there would have been no forewarning.
If the public had a truly representative body rather than the Congress, it might ask exactly what it was that it purchased with its multibillion dollar investment.
1The FEMA website offers this on Mr. Brown—
Michael D. Brown was nominated by President George W. Bush as the first Under Secretary of Emergency Preparedness and Response in the newly created Department of Homeland Security in January 2003. As the head of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Under Secretary Brown leads federal disaster response and recovery operations and coordinates disaster activities with more than two dozen federal agencies and departments and the American Red Cross. He also oversees the National Flood Insurance Program and the U.S. Fire Administration, and initiates proactive mitigation activities.
Additionally, Under Secretary Brown helps the Secretary of Homeland Security ensure the effectiveness of emergency responders, and directs the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Integration Center, the National Disaster Medical System and the Nuclear Incident Response Team.
His preparation for the post is noted at the bottom—
His background in state and local government also includes serving as an assistant city manager with emergency services oversight and as a city councilman.[back]