Monday, September 05, 2005

How can a natural disaster be political? This is how.

Most of this information has already been widely reported elsewhere, but this is the most succinct summary I've seen of it, from The Washington Monthly (forwarded through child_lit):

January 2001: Bush appoints Joe Allbaugh, a crony from Texas, as head of FEMA. Allbaugh has no previous experience in disaster management.

April 2001: Budget Director Mitch Daniels announces the Bush administration's goal of privatizing much of FEMA's work. In May, Allbaugh confirms that FEMA will be downsized: "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program...." he said. "Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level."

2001: FEMA designates a major hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the three "likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country."

December 2002: After less than two years at FEMA, Allbaugh announces he is leaving to start up a consulting firm that advises companies seeking to do business in Iraq. He is succeeded by his deputy, Michael Brown, who, like Allbaugh, has no previous experience in disaster management.

March 2003: FEMA is downgraded from a cabinet level position and folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Its mission is refocused on fighting acts of terrorism.
2003: Under its new organization chart within DHS, FEMA's preparation and planning functions are reassigned to a new Office of Preparedness and Response. FEMA will henceforth focus only on response and recovery.

Summer 2004: FEMA denies Louisiana's pre-disaster mitigation funding requests. Says Jefferson Parish flood zone manager Tom Rodrigue: "You would think we would get maximum consideration....This is what the grant program called for. We were more than qualified for it."
June 2004: The Army Corps of Engineers budget for levee construction in New Orleans is slashed. Jefferson Parish emergency management chiefs Walter Maestri comments: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay."

June 2005: Funding for the New Orleans district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is cut by a record $71.2 million. One of the hardest-hit areas is the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, which was created after the May 1995 flood to improve drainage in Jefferson, Orleans and St. Tammany parishes.

August 2005: While New Orleans is undergoing a slow motion catastrophe, Bush mugs for the cameras, cuts a cake for John McCain, plays the guitar for Mark Wills, delivers an address about V-J day, and continues with his vacation. When he finally gets around to acknowledging the scope of the unfolding disaster, he delivers only a photo op on Air Force One and a flat, defensive, laundry list speech in the Rose Garden.

A crony with no relevant experience was installed as head of FEMA. Mitigation budgets for New Orleans were slashed even though it was known to be one of the top three risks in the country. FEMA was deliberately downsized as part of the Bush administration's conservative agenda. After DHS was created, FEMA's preparation and planning functions were taken away.

Actions have consequences. No one could predict that a hurricane the size of Katrina would hit this year, but the slow federal response when it did happen was no accident. It was the result of four years of deliberate Republican policy and budget choices. It's the Bush administration in a nutshell.

CK: David Brooks also had a great editorial on the political ramifications of Katrina in yesterday's Times, and you can donate to the Red Cross here.


  1. If you want to play the blame game, it's absolutely absurd to point the finger at the Bush administration and Republicans when it's Democrats who are running the corrupt government in that state and have been for quite some time. It's not the federal government's role to interfere with state's rights unless asked to.

    First of all, it's not FEMA's job to be the first responder to an emergency; it's the job of the local government. The disaster plan for New Orleans itself states this exact point. Why didn't they carry out their own plans? Second, FEMA cannot become involved until requested by the governor of the state. The mayor himself reported that Governor Blanco sat on the request for federal aid even when urged by the President to act quickly.

    As for FEMA's movement from a cabinet position to the Dept. of Homeland Security (DHS), wasn't it Senator Lieberman who initially advanced the creation of the new department? Now Senator Clinton is calling for the removal of it from the DHS? Didn't they all vote for it to be that way? Is it fair for them to blame the bureaucracy they created like they had nothing to do with it?

    Yes, there were funding cuts to levee projects. How did the city choose to spend the funding they were given? Even if the funding for the upgrades had been approved, they would have taken 20 years to implement, per the plans. This argument doesn't seem to have any merit on that simple fact alone.

    It was well known the levees, as they were, couldn't withstand more than a category 3 hurricane. Why then was there no mandatory early evacuation of the city when Katrina was predicted to be a category 4 or even 5? Were the officials afraid that if it blew over, they might be embarrassed for ordering an unnecessary evac? Was it incompetence? Maybe a bad judgment call? Who knows?

    Must the plight of these people be politicized in order to continue Bush-bashing? Apparently so.

  2. First of all, hi, Dave, welcome -- I hope you and Hilary and Phoebe are doing well. And I'm sorry, but I am now a staunch Democrat and fiercely opposed to the Bush administration and its actions, so my blog is probably going to make you angry rather a lot, as indeed the Republicans make me.

    Secondly, thank you for the points you raise, some of which are valid and I did not know. There was an interesting article in the New York Times today about exactly this issue of the federal government's versus the state's responsibilities:; Governor Blanco certainly should have called for the federal government's help earlier; perhaps President Bush should have overridden her authority earlier and sent in the 82nd Airborne. This is a case where hindsight is providing us all with absolutely gorgeous 20/20 vision.

    And you are correct that the local government should be the first responder to an emergency. In this case, however, the local first responders were caught in first a hurricane and then a flood, so the answer to your question is, they didn't carry out their own plan because they were in over their heads quite literally -- in some places by 25 feet of water.

    Senator Lieberman may have encouraged the founding of the Homeland Security Department, but its foundation frankly has nothing to do with the subject under discussion, which is whether FEMA belongs there. If you read the history of the agency here:, FEMA was founded primarily to deal with natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, and forest fires. Civil defense functions were integrated later, and in 2001, it was refocused on defending against/responding to terrorism and terrorist attacks. I don't know whether Senator Clinton is right in calling for FEMA to be removed from the DHS; to some extent it makes sense to have all of those functions under one roof. But at the same time, it is undeniable that the Bush administration's obsession with terrorism has detracted from FEMA's ability to concentrate on what were once its primary duties of planning for and responding to natural disasters, just as the administration's ultimately unjustified war in Iraq has detracted from our ability to address many ongoing domestic issues.

    Then, actually there was a mandatory evacuation -- Mayor Nagin ordered one on August 28, just after Katrina became a Category 5 storm. Roughly 150,000 people remained in the city, some by choice, most probably not.

    And here is what I truly fault the Bush administration for: their deeply lackadaisical attitude toward those 150,000 who remained, who were predominantly black and poor. The facts here have been extensively reported: Michael Brown only ordered Homeland Security employees to the region on August 29, the day after the hurricane struck, and one of the duties of those employees was to "convey a positive image" of the government's disaster response. Bush didn't alter his travel plans or other behavior in the least for three days after the disaster began; he flew from Texas to Washington in February just to sign a law for Terri Schiavo, for heaven's sake. And Barbara Bush's comment quoted on my post today stands as a classic example of how out-of-touch the President is with Americans who suffer for economic reasons (never mind his highlighting Trent Lott as an example of a person who has been particularly hard hit by the devastation).

    So, in response to your question "Must the plight of these people be politicized in order to continue Bush-bashing?":

    No, their plight should not be politicized -- our first priority must be to save the living, bury the dead, and restore New Orleans if it can be restored. But the causes of that plight are political as well as natural, and if Bush and his administration deserves to be bashed for them, as I believe as he does here, then by God, I'm going to do it.

  3. Hi Cheryl! I suppose I was impolite for not including a greeting. Many apologies! Things are great down here in the "red" state of Kansas. ;) My girls are both doing fine as well - thanks for asking. Glad to hear things are going well for you - congrats on your promotion!

    I'm fully aware of your political persuasion. I'm curious, would you label yourself as a Democrat or a Liberal (or both)? I mean, if you were going to apply a label in such a manner. I'll gladly say I'm a Conservative, whose views tend to more line up with Republicans. Though I do sometimes think the Republican party can be a bunch of spineless ninnies (I mean, c'mon - we have majority - act like it). Anyway, I doubt you'll say much here that will anger me. Hope you don't mind if I chime in now and then (and hope you don't take it personally, either). Mostly, I quite enjoy the challenge of honing my writing skills against one so well trained and skilled in that area. You state your views quite eloquently. Plus, it's just plain fun to share viewpoints. But, I digress.

    I may have misrepresented myself a bit on FEMA. I think any way you slice it (as part of DHS or otherwise) it's a bureaucratic mess. They couldn't find their butts with both hands. I ran across this article today - I think he hits the nail on the head. My point was more that I'm not sure it's fair to say that FEMA was in top form until this administration; FEMA has been a mess for a while.

    Your observation on hindsight is right on. It's easy to say what should have been done now that we see more facts. My data on the date of evacuation was incorrect as you pointed out.

    I don't know how the former First Lady's comments show this administration is out of touch (emphasis on former - plus I started a small thread on that post), nor do I understand what the President could have accomplished by dropping everything and flying down to New Orleans. Part of his job is to delegate; that can be accomplished from anywhere, especially with the advanced communications technologies we possess. The area had to be safe before he could consider a visit. I also hope you're not insinuating (as many others have) that response was slow BECAUSE the majority of people in New Orleans are poor and black. That just happens to be the makeup of the population. Response was slow because of the bureaucracies in place, and as you so accurately stated, the whole joint was underwater.

    If you think their plight should not be politicized, what's your opinion of the protest that was held Thursday in Wash DC? Do you think that was politically motivated? In good taste?

    You have every right to bash our President. It sounds like you don't want to do it at the expense of the victims of the hurricane. But there seem to be plenty of those in the left-wing who are. How strongly do you stand behind your assertion of "No, their plight should not be politicized"?