Disastrous Leadership Failed To Heed Lessons From Florida

By Robert Wexler

Published September 16, 2005, issue of September 16, 2005.
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A devastating hurricane rips through a southern state. There is no power, water or ice. The poor and the elderly are hardest hit and most forgotten. Sewage overflows into the streets. Federal officials struggle to establish supply routes for life-sustaining aid.

I could be describing the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Katrina. I also could be talking about my home state of Florida last year.

While I appreciate the logistical nightmare and inherent difficulties in directing relief operations in between hurricanes, it is simply astounding that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the federal agency responsible for disaster recovery, did not make preparations for the storm that hit the Gulf last month. It is mind-boggling that a year since Florida’s disasters, FEMA has yet to learn its lessons.

In the critical days immediately following Katrina making landfall, FEMA director Michael Brown — who resigned Monday — seemed barely to be aware of the tragic reality on the ground. The Bush administration’s excuses that it did not realize the extent of damage and the degree of humanitarian crisis are untenable.

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It was as though the administration was in a bubble as millions of Americans watched and immediately understood the enormity of this national disaster.

Unfortunately, Floridians have seen this denial before. As FEMA handed out more than $30 million to residents of Miami-Dade County who had made fraudulent claims after Hurricane Frances last year, Brown refused to admit responsibility or take action. It became clear that he was not willing to show the leadership necessary to reform FEMA after the agency was exposed for doling out millions to people who experienced no more than a heavy rainstorm. One could expect that the head of an agency so embroiled in fraud would root out the cause of this debacle and reform whatever bureaucratic loopholes it had permitted in the first place. Michael Brown did neither of these things.

This past January, concerned about mismanagement at FEMA, I asked President Bush to replace Brown. The president ignored my request, and Brown remained at his post until his performance in the aftermath of Katrina proved once again that he was not up to the task of FEMA director.

Under Brown’s leadership, no substantial reforms were undertaken, despite a Senate committee’s confirmation of fraud in Florida. As reports poured in concerning the extent of Katrina’s destruction, I, like all Americans, was horrified at the human suffering and scope of this tragedy. I was outraged at FEMA’s response, but I was not surprised — I had already seen FEMA’s bureaucracy at work.

Following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Americans rightfully expected that an agency dedicated to emergency management would be directed by professionals with real experience in dealing with natural disasters or terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, FEMA under the Bush administration was until this week directed by Brown and other political appointees who were rewarded for campaign loyalty. One might also expect that FEMA would establish contingency plans and prepare in advance for known disasters; the anemic and delayed response to Katrina disproves this seemingly reasonable expectation.

The damage done to the Gulf Coast, including the breach of the New Orleans levees, was expected. It was predicted. The possibility of a major hurricane making landfall in New Orleans was listed in a FEMA report on likely disasters in 2001, and every meteorologist predicted that Katrina would be a major storm days in advance.

Engineers openly admitted that the levees were designed to withstand only a Category 3 hurricane. Experts knew that Katrina would be far stronger. It is a stain on the record of FEMA that the groundwork was not laid to prepare for a hurricane of this magnitude — either as an advance plan from 2001 or in the days leading up to Katrina’s landing — when it was predicted to be a Category 5 storm.

As relief efforts continue, it is clear that the failed federal Katrina response resulted from either indifference or incompetence. Although Brown is now gone, FEMA’s problems are far from solved. To ensure that the federal government is prepared to deal with future disasters, three things need to happen immediately.

First, the Bush administration must remove political appointees and other officials who are unqualified to lead our federal disaster response efforts. Second, FEMA must be removed from the enormous Department of Homeland Security and streamlined from ordinary governmental bureaucracy. The head of FEMA must report directly to the president, not to the secretary of Homeland Security. Third, we need an independent, unbiased commission to investigate the inexcusable shortfalls in the federal, state and local responses to Katrina, similar to that which was created after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Americans have a right to know why news crews, church groups and private relief organizations were able to assist hurricane victims in the most affected areas while FEMA, with all the resources of the federal government, could not provide help to those who needed it the most. We also have a right to know why the American military relief effort was so successful and expeditious in Aceh, Indonesia, after the tsunami but so late to be ordered in the Gulf. At a minimum, a full examination of the appropriate role of the military, as well as the responsibilities of federal, state and local authorities, in natural disasters must take place.

Ultimately, the responsibility for the mismanagement of the federal response to Katrina lies with Bush. Although Brown is gone and the president has named David Paulison as his replacement, that alone is not enough to root out severe incompetence at the agency or to prepare for the next disaster.

To this end, the president must reverse his endorsement of the Republican-led congressional investigation into Katrina, whose composition and purpose are heavily stacked in the administration’s favor to ensure minimum political fallout. He also must develop a seriousness of purpose similar to the one that has driven our anti-terrorism efforts. And finally, at a time when all Americans are rallying around the victims of Katrina, it is imperative that the president drop his ideological and divisive domestic agenda and unify the nation.

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