Monday, September 05, 2005

Goodbye "Brownie," Head of FEMA

Some links fixed and slight edits made at 4:10 pm on Monday, Sep. 5

Chicago Tribune columnist and blogger Eric Zorn, in an unusual Sunday column [see here] for him, discusses the Hurricane Katrina mess in fairly measured tones.

His central theme is that, after some analysis, 9/11 and Katrina are more similar than he initially thought. And, more importantly, he concludes that “our government agencies are shockingly unprepared to handle a real disaster [like a suitcase nuke],” detonating in major city.

One, no collection of government agencies is ever going to be prepared “to handle a suitcase nuke,” detonating in major city. That’s why the Bush Administration’s primary action in such regard is to prevent that from occurring. Because when it doesn't prevent that, no matter how good the First, Second and Third responders are, Zorn and friends won’t be happy.

As an aside, that is when Zorn might have to re-think whether he really should have paid the kind of attention he did to Cindy Sheehan’s foreign policy and Terrorism analysis [Sheehan: Bush is the World’s “biggest terrorist” and we are “waging a nuclear war,” in Iraq, [See here]]

Two, while Zorn chastises “bureaucrats,” and “government agencies,” the only specific individuals he criticizes are Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA Director Michael Brown, who directly or indirectly reports to Chertoff.

Zorn seems to quote New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, with approval, and doesn’t suggest that perhaps the Mayor might have had something to do with 100,000 or more of his city’s residents not having being evacuated. It is the failure of someone to do a better job of evacuating that is largely responsible for the mess in New Orleans, not to mention untold deaths.

Zorn doesn’t mention the Governor or the Mayor specifically as having some potential culpability. But, if it were Chicago that was required to evacuate, wouldn’t you expect Mayor Daley and Gov. Blagojevich to play a major role in that. Last Sunday, at least nominally, that was the scene in Louisiana [See here]: “Gov. Kathleen Blanco [D-LA], standing beside the mayor [Ray Nagin] at a news conference, said President Bush called and personally appealed for a mandatory evacuation for the low-lying city, which is prone to flooding.”

So the President, at least as of last Sunday, was “appealing to the Governor of Louisiana for a mandatory evacuation." Presumably, Chertoff and maybe even Brown were involved in that.

Zorn complains about Brown’s recent statement that “things are going relatively well,” with Zorn pointing out that “the evacuation plan assumed the poor had ready access to transportation and lodging.” But who was responsible for the evacuation plan? New Orleans Mayor Nagin? Louisiana Governor Blanco? FEMA's Michael Brown?

Zorn doesn’t tell us, but he doesn’t imply that he is very concerned about Nagin’s and Blanco’s performance. Shouldn’t they have had something to do with the evacuation plan? Shouldn’t they have known where those people were located and how best to reach them. If they didn’t have the buses there to get them out, shouldn’t they have talked to Brown and others in the Federal Government about getting some buses? Some vans? Some access to Greyhound? Some planes? Something?

Sure, it is one thing to say that the Feds have a much greater ability to access those resources, but shouldn’t Nagin and Blanco have been a part of that evacuaton plan? Isn’t the Governor the one with the authority to call up the National Guard in Louisiana, absent congressional authorization of the President to do so? All sorts of mainstream media have suggested that due to Iraq, the National Guard was not available. But the Tribune’s Steve Chapman points out [See here] that the great majority of Louisana National Guard troops were available [In Louisana, and in most other states, it is estimated that about one third of the National Guard are in Iraq]. Chapman also counsels against “affixing blame until all the facts are in.”

Notwithstanding that good advice from Chapman, I am ready to make some preliminary findings:Michael Brown should go, and the sooner the better. The guy is in way over his head. His primary experience prior to coming to the FEMA as its general counsel in 2001 was as the Judges and Stewards Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association [earning 100K/year] and prior to that he was practicing law in an Oklahoma city a bit larger than the North Shore village of Wilmette, IL. [See here] What were they thinking when the put Brown in the top position at FEMA?

Well, Brown was a longtime friend of Joe Allbaugh, President Bush’s 2000 campaign manager, who brought Brown along as his General Counsel, when Allbaugh was rewarded with the head of FEMA position in 2001. A year later, Allbaugh made his friend the FEMA Deputy Director. That was bad enough, but then someone made the bonehead decision to replace Allbaugh with Brown when Allbuagh left as Head of FEMA in February, 2003.

Brown appeared on Nightline on Thursday night and got about one out of every two questions factually wrong. 500 might be a good batting average for baseball, but not so much for FEMA. And, the guy throughout the whole show looked the part of the “deer in the headlights.”In Mobile, Ala., on Friday, Bush said the response to Katrina was unsatisfactory. But he had nothing but praise for his FEMA director. "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," the president said. [See here].

It is statements like that that give most conservatives, let alone the rest of the country, more than just a little pause about "W." No, Mr. President, Brownie is not doing a heck of a job. If Blanco and Nagin were screwing up, he should have been all over them about doing more. He should have offered buses. He should have asked them where the folks were who would not have the means to evacuate, how to get the news to them and then do everything he could to work with Blanco and Nagin to get those people out of there. It appears that "Brownie," did none of that.

It doesn’t matter, Mr. President, that Gov. Blanco and Mayor Nagin should have done more. The buck [slip] stops with You and Brownie’s screw ups hurt you. They also hurt Chertoff, who made some misstatements. But, until Homeland Security was created, the Head of FEMA wouldn’t even have a Chertoff to share in the blame. That just serves to emphasize how out of his depth Brown was and continues to be.

Clearly, Chertoff should look around for any other weak links like Brownie, and get rid of them before, not wait until after, they screw up.
As to Blanco and Nagin, I would fire them, too. But, we can’t, since they are officeholders outside the presidential personnel jurisdiction. Blanco appears to have done nothing to get ready for this or to deal with it, other than to complain, after the fact, about looting- while, apparently giving little thought to maintaining law and order before the Hurricane hit.

Nagin is praised by
Archpundit [See here] for mouthing off after the fact, but the New Orleans Mayor seemed to do nothing before the Hurricane hit to facilitate the evacuation of poor people, or even to ask the state or feds for resources to help him accomplish that.

State and local “do nothings,” get away with this nonsense because many in the mainstream media think that states and local governments don’t have and shouldn’t have any real governing responsibility. In their world, our country would be known simply as America, not the United States of America, and states would be simply historical artifacts and geographical delineations to break up the monotony of cross country travel.

Although made in a different context, this statement by an apparently big time journalist, made yesterday morning on George Stephanopoulos’ This Week, illustrates the problem:

I think that most Americans don’t think of themselves as residents of individual states. I mean one of the things that has been left untalked about much is this patchwork of various election laws, for example. You get to vote one way in one state and a different way in a different state and, in fact, with the exception of this ruling which allowed George Bush to become President, we mostly respect those laws. But, I think if you were looking at this from another country you would find that a very odd way of doing business.

Cynthia Tucker, Atlanta-Journal Constitution, "This Week," September 4, 2005

Contrary to Cynthia Tucker's thoughts, I think most residents think of themselves as residents of individual states, as well as residents of villages or cities, and residents of counties, which are located in states, which are located in the USA. And, you know what? Each of those government divisions has governmental entities with governmental responsibilities. And, those governing units each has voters who vote and who pay taxes within those jurisdictions.

Anybody who thinks the same way Cynthia Tucker does would of course not look to Governor Blanco to do anything. Ever. About anything. Same with Mayor Nagin. Why should he do anything about working with the State and the Feds to get poor people evacuated? He is only the mayor.

Similarly, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin only has criticism for President Bush, Brown and the Federal Government. She also gives a pass to the Democratic Governor and Mayor of Louisiana.[See here]. Marin even manages to throw in that we are losing the war in Iraq. A two for-- if I ever saw one. It would have been the Hat Trick for Marin if she could have somehow worked in her support for a run for Governor by moderate Republicans [the only kind Marin really likes] Jim Edgar or Judy Baar Topinka.

Now, that having being said about Zorn's and other mainstream media's benign neglect of state and local leaders' screw-ups, President Bush might actually want to act more like a President in circumstances such as this one, i.e., imminent natural disasters. You know-- President Bush was the Governor of a state that is located near this disaster and that is receiving many of those evacuated.

Shouldn’t George W. Bush actually know something of substance on these issues? Couldn’t “W” have left Crawford, TX early? Gone back to the White House on the Saturday or Sunday before this happened—when the Hurricane was being pegged as a Category 5 and the AP was already writing about the levee not holding [See here]. The President could have Called up “Brownie,” or Chertoff and asked if they had this under control.

President Bush could have asked if they had contacted the Governor and Mayor and discussed how this mandatory evacuation was going to work. He, or somebody at his direction, could have asked-- "If Katrina really hits, are the troops really ready to go in and restore order?" Yes, the Governor has to ask for the troops, but did the President let Gov. Blanco know they were anxious to support her on that request? And, if the National Guard couldn't be mobilized fast enough, the President does have access to some troops of his own that can be sent pronto on his command.

The President could have canceled the political events out west in the early part of the week and invited FOX and CNN in to cover the President meeting with Chertoff and Brown. He could have spoken on early Sunday morning, a week ago, to the nation and to the people of New Orleans on TV. They still had electricity—word might get out that this was serious, that they should get out and the buses would be there to help them do so. Heck, give them transportation vouchers and let the bus companies know that these people now had sufficient resources to pay for a bus ride.

Now, what is the downside to taking the above actions? Say, the forecasts were off. Say, the Category 5 was a Cagegory 1 or 2 hurricane. A lot of time and money wasted. They had evacuated for nothing. And, they all blamed the President.

Given what we knew even at that time, before the Hurricane hit-- that could have happened—but not too likely. And, even if the President had acted on such a false alarm, the consequences would have been much less harmful, from a political and public policy perspective than the course of action chosen by the President [or one of his senior aides].

And, Karl Rove, the political genius, chose to keep Bush out of this for a week?

And, someone in the Bush Administration, I suppose Chertoff, chose to let “Brownie,” screw this up on all on his own? Gee, did Brownie ever think of getting the poor people on Arabian horses? Quite a photo op!

And Rove, et al get big bucks and prestige for making these decisions? Hard to explain, isn’t it.
Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of Public Affairs and an Executive Recruiter doing Legal Search, can be reached at