Katrina: How George Bush(es) destroyed FEMA
August 23, 2007 - 4:11pm ET
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On August 31, 2005, when the first corpses began floating down the Lower 7th Ward's byways and George W. Bush was still enjoying a Crawford vacation, blogger Kevin Drum, as is so often the case, was first across the post with a rundown on the state of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. If you want the short version, it was merely this: you can chart FEMA health and effectiveness with a sine wave. When Democrats were in office it just kept getting better and better. When conservatives took over, it crashed. Wash, rinse, repeat; wash, rinse, repeat.
Here are the details.
Drum quoted a 1995 Washington Monthly piece that began:
Rarely had the failure of the federal government been so apparent and so acute. On August 24, 1992, Hurricane Andrew leveled a 50-mile wide swath across southern Florida, leaving nearly 200,000 residents homeless and 1.3 million without electricity. Food, clean water, shelter, and medical assistance were scarce. Yet, for the first three days, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for coordinating federal disaster relief, was nowhere to be found. And when FEMA did finally arrive, its incompetence further delayed relief efforts. Food and water distribution centers oculdn't meet the overwhelming need; lines literally stretched for miles. Mobile hospitals arrived late. In everything it did, FEMA appeared to live up to the description once given to it by South Carolina Se. Ernest Hollidngs: 'the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever known.
Yes: history is a nightmare from which we're trying to awake.
It's been such a depressing few years for progressives. So far gone are the institutions of enlightened governance that it's hard to imagine we can ever get them back, let alone in any kind of timely fashion. FEMA showed once before it can be done. Continued the Monthly article:
Fast forward one year to the summer of 1993: Weeks of unrelenting rainfall had driven the level of the Mississippi River and its tributaries far beyond the previous records. Every county in the state of Iowa was declared a federal disaster area, as were portions of eight other states in the river basin. But this time, FEMA's response earned nothing but praise. The agency met the needs of the flood victims quickly and with few of its trademark bureaucratic tangles. Said Congressman Norman Mineta, then chair of the committee that oversees the agency, "FEMA has delivered finally on its promise to stand with the American people when floods or hurricanes or earthquakes devastate their communities."
Then, of course, it happened again. May I repeat myself: history is a nightmare from which we're trying to awake.
But we can awake. We know how to do it. Just take the protocols of conservative "governence," and do the opposite.
FEMA was, in the words of former advisory board member and defense analyst Lawrence Korb, a "political dumping ground," a backwater reserved for political contributors or friends with no experience in emergency management. President Bush, for example, appointed Wallace Stickney, head of New Hampshire's Department of Transportation, to lead FEMA. Stickney's only apparent qualification for the post was that he was a close friend and former next door neighbor of Bush Chief of Staff John Sununu. Throughout his time there, Stickney was nearly invisible, except for regular trips to Capitol Hill to defend the agency against its many critics.... Sam Jones, the mayor of Franklin, Louisiana, says he was shocked to find that the damage assessors sent to his town a week after Hurricane Andrew had no disaster experience whatsoever
By "President Bush," of course, the author means the other President Bush. Remember, this is an article from 1995. Back when, you know, Republicans f'ing up FEMA looked like this, in the words of a Hurricane Andrew witness: "You got the feeling that you were no longer in the United States, but in some far away, mystical place because there were none of the reference points of civilization.... It looked like Beirut."
Progressives saved the day, of course. The heroes of the story are Senator Barbara Mikulski, President Clinton, and Clinton's wise choice to newly head of FEMA, James Lee Witt, who began with a radical idea: fire the cronies, and hire disinterested, professional disaster experts to staff the agency.
Then came another George Bush, of course. And as a Washington Post op-ed from the day before Kevin Drum's post pointed out, the subsequent developments were all too predictable:
The advent of the Bush administration in January 2001 signaled the beginning of the end for FEMA. The newly appointed leadership of the agency showed little interest in its work or in the missions pursued by the departed [James Lee] Witt.... This year it was announced that FEMA is to "officially" lose the disaster preparedness function that it has had since its creation. The move is a death blow to an agency that was already on life support. In fact, FEMA employees have been directed not to become involved in disaster preparedness functions, since a new directorate (yet to be established) will have that mission.
First came the appointment of Joseph Albaugh to head FEMA—nothing but a close Bush political friend. Then came the appointment of Michael Brown—nothing but a close Albaugh political friend. The man forced out of his last place of employing, supervising horse shows, because he couldn't even manage that. Cronies of cronies, "government" running on fumes. By that time, according to a subsequent Senator Homeland Security Committee report, FEMA was operating at a 15-percent staff-vacancy rate.
By that time, the nightmare had made ready to repeat.
And the problem, as ever, was conservatism.
I recently had an instructive moment with a colleague here at Campaign for America's Future. We've been discussing a series of texts for a redesign of the site meant to introduce the various themes of The Big Con. In one box, he'd placed various consequences of conservative government. In another, he'd placed descriptions various fundamentals of conservative philosophy. He'd placed "cronyism" in the first box. I gently corrected him, moving it to the second. One of conservative fundamental is that the progressive notion of staffing government with disinterested experts is neither desirable or possible. They speak of agencies being "captured" by the "public interest" community—a crowd they consider political cronies in themselves, mere apparatchiks of some nefarious "liberal" machine. It is a core conservative principle: if one is not an active conservative, then only alternative is that you are a liberal. Thus believing an expert civil service and a phalanx of Republican hacks equally cronyful, they don't know any other way than to staff a government with Albaughs and Michael Browns. It's literally an ontological impossibility for them.
That being the case, "Heck of a job, Brownie," has to be classed alongside Ronald Reagan's "government isn't the solution to our problems, government is the problem" as quintessential modern conservative docrinal statements.
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