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September 07, 2005


Good friggin' lord:

FEMA Chief Sent Help Only After Storm Hit

WASHINGTON (AP) - The top U.S. disaster official waited hours after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast before he proposed to his boss sending at least 1,000 Homeland Security workers into the region to support rescuers, internal documents show.

Part of the mission, according to the documents obtained by The Associated Press, was to "convey a positive image" about the government's response for victims.

He waits until the storm hits, and then he actually has the gall to suggest that part of the mission should be to try to make the government look good.

Michael Brown shouldn't just be fired. He should be shot. Even better: He should be turned over to the survivors.

Also, you may recall that I earlier noted that one difference between Iraq and New Orleans is that this time the government isn't able to hide our American dead. Surprise! but That doesn't mean that the administration isn't going to try to hide them. Because, after all, all those dead people won't exactly convey a positive image about the government's reponse for victims, now, would they. And we can't have that.

Posted by john at September 7, 2005 10:09 AM

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Tracked on September 7, 2005 10:35 AM


Kevin Q | September 7, 2005 10:49 AM

We ought to call this guy "Kevlar," cause really, he's going to be catching all the flack that Bush should be getting.


Dean | September 7, 2005 10:49 AM

It's like they're trying to raise incompetence to an art.

JimW | September 7, 2005 11:24 AM

Not to defend any of the apparently rampant governmental incompetence, but I'm fairly certain I'd rather not discover that a loved one has died by seeing a photo of their bloated, decomposing body in the newspaper.

Jerry | September 7, 2005 11:25 AM

Uh, maybe my sarcasm detector is busted. What's so wrong with sending help after the hurricane has hit? Should he instead have had people out on the road in the middle of the hurricane? Doesn't he have some responsibility to keep his employees safe too?

As to part of his job being PR, well, it's true isn't it? That doesn't mean PR should be done at the expense of rescue work, of course, but part of his job is to talk to the press, and to present his work and his workers in a positive light.

John Scalzi | September 7, 2005 11:34 AM


"What's so wrong with sending help after the hurricane has hit? Should he instead have had people out on the road in the middle of the hurricane?"

Inasmuch as it takes up to 48 hours to activate people, their being on the road in the middle of a hurricane is not the issue. The issue is that once the hurricane has move through and its safe to come in, they would already be ready. A hurricane is a relatively predictable disaster: We can see it coming and we can see where it's going. Being prepared ahead of time would have gotten help there far more quickly.

Bear also in mind -- as others have pointed out -- that President Bush had already declared areas of the south eligible for federal disaster help days before Katrina hit, meaning (as I understand it) that FEMA could have begun organizing its resources from that time. It did not.

As for the PR aspect: You know, the best PR FEMA could have had was to actually do its job in a timely fashion. It didn't do that, and no amount of after-the-fact PR would correct that.

JimW: I would heartily agree that exploitative pictures of the dead would be over the line, and I would assume most newspaper editors would agree with you. However, one could certainly picture the fact of the dead being recovered without going over that line. When potentially 10,000+ Americans are dead, picturing the dead is an appropriate part of the story.

To go back to the Iraq thing, remember that the pictures of the dead that the press were not supposed be taking in that incidence were of coffins. It's hardly disrespectful to show coffins. The reason to hide the dead in that case (and I rather strongly suspect in this) is not to show respect for the dead but rather to keep the public from seeing the cost of government action (or inaction, as the case may be).

Jerry | September 7, 2005 11:48 AM


I agree with what you're saying to some degree. I think some of the disconnect comes from my upbringing. I was always taught that if you want something screwed up by the numbers, you let the government do it. So, the fact that a massive federal beauracracy was slow to get things in motion is exactly what I expect.

The fact is that FEMA did have people in place even before the storm hit. It even acknowledges that in the article you linked. Should it have had more people mobilizing before the storm hit? Probably. But there's no way for them to know before hand the scope of the damage headed for the Gulf Coast, or where it was going to be centered.

Yes, I know the news media went crazy in the 24 hours before the storm hit. If you recall, they do the same thing about twice a year when Florida is threatened with a bad hurricane. Our last actual experience with such a thing was when Andrew hit the Miami area. The destruction across the Gulf Coast from Katrina is several orders of magnitude greater than what happened to Miami. If the response was geared towards an Andrew-level disaster, no wonder they were overwhelmed by Katrina.

Anyway, I've written more than enough. I agree that the fedral response has been slow and full of the typical giovernmental CYA, in-fighting, and incompetence. I just didn't have the high expectations you apparently did. And I don't think it would have mattered which party was in power, at the local, state or federal level.

John Scalzi | September 7, 2005 11:56 AM

Yes, as I've noted before, my issue is with the incompetence.

Ted Lemon | September 7, 2005 12:03 PM

Jerry, who but a large governmental organization would have the resources to come in at a time like this? And why couldn't Northcom get in?

In fact, a large government organization is exactly who you want to go in in a time like this. You just want it to be a competent government organization.

Frankly, it boggles my mind sometimes that the same people who will happily ascribe supernatural powers of strategy to a military organization, which is a large governmental body, and who assume that the CIA is quite capable of meaningful planning and execution, nevertheless are equally certain that a non-military governmental body like FEMA can't do a good job.

People go into the military with a certain kind of idealism - a willingness to put their life on the line to defend something they believe in. Not everyone goes into the military with this motivation - some just want a cushy job. But a lot of people do.

Why is it so hard to believe that some people go into government service with the same motivation? And if you can believe that, is it again so hard to believe that such people could actually do some good? What magical difference is there between their position and, say, the Red Cross' position, that makes the Red Cross able to succeed and makes it categorically impossible that FEMA could succeed?

The fact is that it's obvious to me how FEMA could have done a good job here. It's obvious how Northcom could have helped. Why didn't they succeed? Well, at least partly because the person whose job it was to be running the show appears to have been asleep at the wheel. Not because it was government, but because it was poorly managed.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | September 7, 2005 12:12 PM

John! Take it from me: the atrocities will not stop. Meanwhile, you have a book to finish.

Take it from me: once you've typed THE END, there will be fresh atrocities neatly queued up for you.

Signed, Stern and Knowing Taskmaster

JimW | September 7, 2005 12:16 PM

However, one could certainly picture the fact of the dead being recovered without going over that line. When potentially 10,000+ Americans are dead, picturing the dead is an appropriate part of the story.

Agreed. One of the more moving photos I've seen is in Time (and widely shown elsewhere) of a woman feeding her dog next to a canal with a body floating in it.

Jerry | September 7, 2005 12:22 PM

I probably ought to just let this drop, but one more post. Ted: The article you pointed us to says (in the update at the bottom) "The President and Secretary of Defense did authorize us to act right away and are not to blame on this end. Yes, we have to wait for authorization, but it was given in a timely manner." So, what happened? Did the Lt. Commander's story change, or did the BBC get it wrong in the first place?

As to why I think govermental beauracracy is inherintly bad? It has to do with the culture that grows up in an entrenched beauracracy. In times when the agency in question isn't being streched to it's limits, it entrenches. People engage in nepotism, rampant meeting-ism and report-itis to look busy. Since it's a governmental agency, they get away with it. It's difficult to fire people, and it's difficult to trim budgets because spending less this year by being more efficient means you get less funding next year. That creates an incentive to bloat the organization. I don't think the military or intel branches of the government are immune to this. I think the military, in particular, is aware of the problem and tries to combat it, but with only limited success.

As to why private aid organizations do a better job, it's because they don't live in the bizzarre world of governement budgets. There's no incentive to put warm bodies in chairs for no reason other than to fill staffing and budget requirements. Also, since funding is voluntary and the organization is required to have (somewhat) open books, people can choose to cease funding charities' whoose administrative costs get out of control.

Tor | September 7, 2005 12:32 PM

Jerry, my understanding of what you've said is that because government is often slow, bloated and semi-incompetant, we don't have a right to expect anything more?

Because unexpected things happen around disasters, we shouldn't expect the Federal Agency tasked with responding to those disasters to be as prepared as possible?

Because government officials have screwed up in the past, we shouldn't expect someone better than a former attorney for the International Arabian Horse Association, who was fired from his job after reports of financial improprieties?

When people are still in the water, you don't pull rescuers off the job for a photo op. That was indefensible.

The fact is, a lot more could have been done to mitigate the damage. Mitigate, not eliminate. In 2001, FEMA listed a major storm hitting NOLA as one of the three most likely disasters to face the country. The other two? Terrorist attack on NYC and an earthquake hitting the SF bay Area. FEMA is now two for three, and I'm glad I don't live in SF.

The government and FEMA could have done a better job. They should have done a better job. We should expect them to do a better job, or we get what we deserve.

FEMA was created to quickly respond, and to pre-emptively respond to disasters where ever possible. If the response was geared towards an Andrew/Miami type disaster, someone screwed up badly. Because this was a storm we knew was more powerful than Andrew, on a direct course for a city below sea level, where the state and local governments had been saying for years that the levees were not strong enough.

By the end of this, thousands of people will be dead, who could have been saved. This administration's attitude is best summed up by the President's mother, and former First Lady:

"What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas," Barbara Bush said in an interview on Monday with the radio program "Marketplace." "Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality."

"And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway," she said, "so this is working very well for them."

John Scalzi | September 7, 2005 12:32 PM

I'm typing as we speak, Patrick. I swear.

Todd | September 7, 2005 12:34 PM

There are two issues here a.) why were so many people still in New Orleans after evacuation orders had been issued? and b.) why was the post-hurricane response so slow?

In regards to a.): The people who stayed in the city were a mixture of people who wanted to leave but couldn't afford a way out--as well as people who could afford to leave, but decided to stay and take their chances. (Even now, some people are refusing to leave.)

Coping with this situation in the hours before the hurricane would seem to be the responsibility of local authorities rather than the federal government. However, it is doubtful that *any* government could have organized a house-to-house search for holdouts prior to the storm. For better or worse, the nature of the situation would seem to make evacuation mostly a matter of individual responsibility. This does not, of course, make the deaths less fortunate. But practically speaking, what would you have wanted the federal government to do?

The post-hurricane response was slow because of a mixture of incompetance at the municipal, local, and federal levels. One third of the New Orleans police department deserted when looters started taking pot shots. In addition, we have to ask where the state police were. Louisiana in general, and New Orleans in particular, are known for corrupt and inefficient government. Police corruption in Louisiana has been the subject of innumerable TV magazine segments.

This doesn't mean that there aren't any fingers to point at the Bush administration. But you seem to be oversimplifying this a bit.

Bob | September 7, 2005 12:41 PM

It's a vicious circle: you think government aid is inherently bad, then vote for pols who think so, too. Those pols appoint incompetent people to head aid agencies and cut funding to the bone. Come disaster time, government response is incompetent. Voila, the circle completes itself. Or should I say, the spiral?

James Lee Witt did such a good job as head of FEMA during the Clinton Administration that no less a political light than GW himself praised him during one of his debates with Gore (you always want to have one emergency compliment in your hip pocket at these affairs, lest you be branded partisan).

You can have competent government intervention in disasters. provided you elect a competent government. If not, you've got your basic self-fulfilling prophecy. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the notion that government can do nothing is every bit as corrosive as the notion that it can do everything.

J Osborne | September 7, 2005 12:43 PM

What magical difference is there between their position and, say, the Red Cross' position, that makes the Red Cross able to succeed and makes it categorically impossible that FEMA could succeed?

If the Red Cross does a bad enough job people stop giving them money (and hopefully donate it to a charity that is doing a better job). End result: a bad Red Cross wouldn't exist or would be far smaller.

If FEMA does a bad enough job people stop paying taxes. Oh, wait that's not going to work. If FEMA does a bad enough job people make a lot of noise, and then politicians make a lot of noise about "fixing" FEMA which is likely to be more noise then action.

That's not to say all government agencies suck, and all private charities are perfect, just that it is harder to be an ineffective charity then an ineffective government agency.

Elia Diodati | September 7, 2005 12:47 PM

Hi there, I just came across your blog.

I'm shocked to hear about the inaction taken by a bureau chief who is supposed to be responsible for emergencies, and that he didn't take the initiative to go ahead in a time-critical situation. But then again, it's really hard for bureaucrats to look beyond ass-covering. Should we really be so surprised?

Ted Lemon | September 7, 2005 01:10 PM

So here's the thing, Jerry. Any organization that's large enough to handle an emergency like the one in NO is large enough that groupthink and nepotism can cause damage. Whether it's a governmental body or not. The Red Cross is not exempt from this. So what do you do? You take into account that this is going to be a problem, and you take positive action to try to prevent it from happening.

One example of positive action: if you are, say, the Commander in Chief, you make sure to appoint someone who is widely agreed to be competent to handle the job. And you check in every once in a while.

This excuse that "it's government, so it can't succeed" is just that - an excuse. I'm guessing, from your rhetoric, that you voted for Bush. So congratulations - you got the government you asked for, and the FEMA you asked for. We saw how Bush responded to 9/11 - it should be no surprise to anyone who voted for Bush in the previous election that things turned out the way they did. Government helping people isn't Bush's priority. Government killing people is.

Ted Lemon | September 7, 2005 01:16 PM

Er, one more thing. It's not acceptable to let entropy take care of problems with emergency preparedness organizations. This is emergency preparedness 101. You can't afford to find out after the fact that the organization was broken, because after the fact people are dead. You prepare in advance. This is not rocket science - anyone who's ever done disaster planning knows this.

If the Red Cross went bad, waiting for it to collapse under its own weight would cost lives. Likewise with FEMA. As we see.

The fact is that it's a cold hard world, and lives are going to be lost one way or another, and ultimately everybody dies. But to not even try... That's just sad.

kevin | September 7, 2005 01:49 PM


it should be noted that in Florida in 2004, FEMA and DHS reacted much more quickly and much more decisively. They know the shape of things they should do -- for some reason, they fell down on the job in this case.

the government is perfectly capable of handling these situations -- they proved that last year.

Rayme | September 7, 2005 02:36 PM


As for "Should we really be so surprised?", well, that's not quite the issue. Should we passivly accept it? Cluck our tongues and smugly mutter "typical" in our best Basil Fawlty impression?

...well, sure, why not. But we should ALSO be angry at the incompetence. And we should want to change things. And we should.

Harry Connolly | September 7, 2005 02:38 PM

Kevin, that was an election year in a swing state.

Very different situation, for some.

Burns! | September 7, 2005 02:50 PM

When this is all over, I just wonder if W will have enough medals and promotions to go around.

In a press conference in Louisiana last week, Bush said to Michael Brown, "...and Brownie, you're doing a great job down here."

John H | September 7, 2005 04:09 PM

Not only did 'Brownie' several hours to ask if he could send help, his instructions told the people they could take two days to get there. No sense of urgency, from W all the way down the line - pathetic...

Jerry | September 7, 2005 04:14 PM

Ted: I agree with you that "Any organization that's large enough to handle an emergency like the one in NO is large enough that groupthink and nepotism can cause damage." I submit to you though that we have never managed to adequately fix this problem. You say good people at the top can fix it, but I don't see the evidence of that. I'm not suggesting that we don't try to do anything about it, but I am sceptical of our ability to succeed.

Kevin: Last year's hurricanes in Florida were a tropical shower compared to what's happened along the gulf coast from Katrina. We had a lot of repair work to do down here, but the critical infrastructure wasn't destroyed the way it has been along the gulf coast. Roads were relatively intact, the power generation facilities were mostly undamaged (through transmission lines were down), and there was no substantial loss of potable water that I recall. I really don't think the two examples are comprable.

Ted: I don't know how to respond to your horribly partisan attack on me. I suppose I should just sling some mud back at you, but I don't have it in me. And that's really the last I have to say on the matter. I mean it this time. Really. :)

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | September 7, 2005 05:29 PM

Yo, John, if you don't have new email from me, check your spam trap.

John Scalzi | September 7, 2005 07:50 PM

Patrick: Got it, sent a revise.

Look, people! You're seeing how writing gets done!

Patrick Nielsen Hayden | September 7, 2005 10:03 PM

Professional drivers on closed road. Contents may settle in shipping. Close cover before striking. Do not attempt at home.

Jon H | September 7, 2005 11:22 PM

Jerry wrote: "So, what happened? Did the Lt. Commander's story change, or did the BBC get it wrong in the first place?"

Hm. Let's see. What are the chances that the Bush administration (so famously concerned with image above truth, justice, and basic competence) made sure the good Lt. Commander understood that a correction would be required if he expected to remain a Lt. Commander?

Frankly, even with his change of heart, I bet a demotion or "retirement" is coming up for him. That's how the Bushes handle people who reveal unpleasant facts.

Al Maviva | September 8, 2005 07:51 AM

Not to defend FEMA here, but a couple things govern response in any disaster.

1. You don't preposition rescuers and material in the path of the disaster. You wait until the destructive part ends, then move things in, as logistical physics and infrastructure permit. For example, the Red Cross had very limited supplies and people on hand in the path of the hurricane, having lost shelters and logistics dumps in the past in hurricanes. When Katrina blew through, by Tuesday AM, the Red Cross was moving in. Of course the state EMA wouldn't let them go to the convention center or superdome, oddly enough, but that's another story. FEMA states they had leadership cadre on the ground as of Sunday; everything after that is augmentation that is responsive in nature, with a force package that meets the needs encountered on the ground.

2. The national response plan generally provides for a substantial federal response roughly 72 hours after a disaster - hence Tom Ridge's admonitions that everybody's personal emergency kit should have food and water for 3-4 days. First responders at the state and local level have primary responsibility to handle everything, with some coordination with the feds, up to that point. At the 72 hour mark or so, the fed presence is supposed to be strong enough, that the feds can take over leadership of the effort, if the state is willing. Gov. Blanco has refused to cede power over any aspect of the Louisiana portion of this disaster, including a refusal to permit federalization of the 20 - 30,000 Guard troops on hand.

3. Given that this is a four state disaster, the logistical tail for the operation is unprecedented. It requires massive amounts of heavy lift - mere cargo flights don't get it done - crossing broken infrastructure. You can't send semis across small bridges and roads; they break, and then nobody gets in or out. The amount of supplies you need to meet the requirements of perhaps a half million displaced persons over a 4 (3.5, really) state area, is mind boggling. Getting that much material in place is in the nature of a complex physics or math problem. Similarly with search and rescue personnel - troops, helicopters, boat crews - you need to ensure that they have sufficient sustainment supplies to avoid becoming victims themselves.

4. There is no substantial, deployable federal search and rescue unit comparable to a state's organic capabilities. The Coast Guard can deploy additional SAR teams to an area, as long as you don't mind pulling them off other duties, such as ensuring the safety of the fishing fleet, etc. The Navy can send teams affiliated with carrier groups and other formations, just as the Army can send tactical units to provide lift - but you have to pull these troops out of the field, pull their equipment out of the maintenance shops if it is in "recovery" mode, cancel hundred million dollar training exercises like Ft. Irwin deployments, and so forth. It's do-able, and the fed gov has are substantial distributed SAR and humanitarian relief resources, but it takes a couple days to pull it off. The Pentagon was notified on Tuesday that troops and ships were needed. Ships sailed immediately from Norfolk. Federal soldiers and Marines were hitting the ground by Friday. Maybe I missed something when I was serving, but two days to drop what you are doing, and deploy, is a pretty fair response.

I think FEMA could have gotten the ball rolling on interDepartmental aid a bit sooner - perhaps 12 - 18 hours sooner - if they figured out the consequences of the levee breaking a bit more quickly. Though they should have done so because individual lives were at stake, I'm not sure it would have made that much difference.

Jim | September 8, 2005 12:57 PM

Plenty of blame to go all around. City government notoriously corrupt and incompetent. Ditto for state government. Governor is a dithering idiot. After noting huge number of screwups caused by those unfortunate facts, there remains the incompetence of FEMA bureaucrats.

Having sucked down billions (tens of billions!) of taxpayer dollars, FEMA -- and Homeland Security, the bureaucracy that swallowed FEMA -- have failed to produce the results. No, they couldn't be there on the day Katrina hit -- the locals are supposed to be able to hold on their own for the first 72 hours -- but once the ball was in their court, it appears that FEMA was not up to the task and it continues to screw up (highly qualified firefighters, experienced experts in search and rescue and haz mat situations, arrive and spend a day sitting through special FEMA training -- including a class on sexual harassment -- so that they can be assigned to handing out leaflets on how to apply for disaster asssitence!)

However, I fear that the end result will not result in fixing the problem with Homeland Security and FEMA because the looney left (from Rev. Jackson to MoveOn.org to DemocratUnderground, etc.) are turning this into a partisan blame Bush festival -- Bushitler used the power from a secret Haliburton space station to make the storm hit New Orleans so he could kill poor black people -- that no lessons will be learned and no reforms will be made.

The complaints about wanting to publish gruesome pictures of floating corpses are coming from the same media that refused to publish pictures of the dead from 9/11 because it might inflame public emotions.

Jon Marcus | September 8, 2005 01:00 PM

Responses to Al, point by point:

1. Yes, you don't put recovery people & resources in the storm's path. But a hurricane's path is fairly predictable. Things will be safe inland. So you position major resources there *before* the hurricane hits. You don't wait until 12-18 hours after landfall to start getting ready.

2. Big difference between when the Feds can get (food, water, medicine, etc) into position and when they take over command/resposibility. According to the Stafford act (http://www.fema.gov/library/stafact.shtm) once the prez declares a federal disaster, (on Saturday 8/27, in this case) the Federal Coordinating Officer is has authority & responsiblity for the response effort.

On Thursday Brown was saying on CNN that he didn't know there were thousands people at the convention center. 3-4 days to ship in food & water? Okay. 3-4 days to figure out where thousands of people are? "Unacceptable."

4. Yes, it's expensive (in $ and time) to deploy military resources for recovery. But this was a predicted disaster. A hurricane striking NOLA was one of FEMA's big 3. Waiting until after the fact to deploy for SAR may have saved hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars. And cost hundreds or thousands of lives.

Jim | September 8, 2005 01:34 PM

According to the NY Times

"Even so, he said relief crews delivered seven trailers filled with water and ready-to-eat meals to the Superdome before the storm hit on Aug. 29, along with another seven trailers on Aug. 30." (The "he" is a spokesman for the Dept of Homeland Security.

If that is true, how could people in the Superdome have been so short on food and water? Lack of organization? Theft? Media slanting of the story? If it is false, then we seem to have a Homeland Security public relations hack flat out lying to us.

Jim | September 8, 2005 01:36 PM

Let me see if I can fix that link

Brian Greenberg | September 8, 2005 01:46 PM

Folks seem to be forgetting that Katrina DIDN'T strike New Orleans. In fact, it veered east at the last minute and struck Mississippi and Alabama. The devestation in New Orleans comes primarily from the broken levees, not the hurricane. Of course, I realize that the hurricane is the primary factor behind the levees breaking, but the point I'm making is that hurricanes are not as predictable as some are making them out to be.

Also, people who talk about waiting until the day after the storm hit to respond should remember that the day after the storm hit was when the bulk of the damage occurred.

As I said in a previous comment thread (and got my head handed to me for saying it), the inherent need to blame George W. Bush for all of our ills seems to have overtaken the need to understand what happened. In fact, it took a few days before we even began blaming FEMA (rather than Bush himself). Now, more than a week in, local authorities are starting to do the right things (forcing evacuations, upholding the law, cooperating with multiple search & rescue groups, etc.) and people are starting to suggest that maybe the blame game was a bit premature.

Carol | September 8, 2005 01:55 PM

John Scalzi said:Bear also in mind -- as others have pointed out -- that President Bush had already declared areas of the south eligible for federal disaster help days before Katrina hit, meaning (as I understand it) that FEMA could have begun organizing its resources from that time. It did not.

Odd thing, though. It appears that the parishes in the original projected path of Hurricane Katrina weren't even included in Bush's declaration.

So many levels of incompetence. So little time...

John Scalzi | September 8, 2005 02:26 PM

Brian Greenberg writes:

"People are starting to suggest that maybe the blame game was a bit premature."

Oddly enough, largely the people who have most to lose by the blame being placed squarely upon them.

mythago | September 8, 2005 02:32 PM

Let me see if I get Brian's gist--even though the rescue efforts were FUBAR for a week, they're underway now, so we should stop blaming anyone or anything with a connection to the President?

Bill Bacon | September 8, 2005 02:39 PM

Actually, this particular example of "incompetence" is poorly aimed. In this case, the head of FEMA asked for his boss - Secretary Chertoff - to ask for 1000 immediate volunteers from other parts of DHS to deploy to the area. FEMA, itself, didn't need the Secretary's permission to deploy its disaster relief teams.

Bill Bacon | September 8, 2005 02:49 PM

Mind you, I'm not blindly defending FEMA, DHS, or the Administration (or anyone else for that matter). There's plenty of stupidity to go around. Its just this example doesn't hold up.

kevin | September 8, 2005 03:06 PM


The articles make very clear that FEMA was doing things ahead of time in preperation - -things they did not do this time.

Nor does the problem with roads explain why helicopters and the like where not used.

sylvia | September 8, 2005 09:45 PM

Barbara Bush is so out of line it makes Snopes (because, ya know, it SOUNDS like an Urban Legend. Would she really say that?) http://www.snopes.com/politics/quotes/barbara2.asp

sylvia | September 8, 2005 09:58 PM

And while I'm at it:

"Gov. Blanco has refused to cede power over any aspect of the Louisiana portion of this disaster, including a refusal to permit federalization of the 20 - 30,000 Guard troops on hand."



If you have a counter claim mail me personally please, as I'd hate to miss it. I don't always watch John's comments on past posts.

Lynxx Pherrett | September 9, 2005 04:21 AM

I suppose I shouldn't rain on your hate parade, especially since your entry is based on swallowing the swill from the Guardian. But, this is what you are condemning (from GovExec.com, Aug 31, emphasis added):

Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has asked for 2,000 Homeland Security Department employees to volunteer for two weeks working in the areas struck by Hurricane Katrina.
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Brown wrote that 1,000 people are needed from the department within the next 48 hours and an additional 1,000 within the next week, the Associated Press reported.
Those that volunteer are being told that the work hours will be long and outdoors.

Oh, how terrible it is to ask for volunteers from among Department of Homeland Security workers whose jobs have nothing to do with disaster response. And it gets even worse, because Brown has the gall to suggest that these volunteers receive a day or two's training in Maryland, Georgia or Florida before being sent into the disaster areas to pass out fliers listing FEMA contact information on applying for disaster aid (i.e. low/no interest home rebuilding loans).

The press apparently didn't think this was either a bad or late idea at the time. But after waiting a week, they can change it from a request for volunteers into a request to deploy workers and say it should have been made earlier.

OTOH, it is valid to complain that the same type of request for FEMA community-relations volunteers went to fire & rescue personnel across the nation.

John Scalzi | September 9, 2005 09:59 AM

Lynxx Pherrett writes:

"I suppose I shouldn't rain on your hate parade, especially since your entry is based on swallowing the swill from the Guardian."

It's actually a report from Associated Press, not the Guardian. It just happens to be in the Guardian, to which I linked because one doesn't have to register to view articles.

Also, and maybe this is just me, but I bet you he could have asked for those volunteers earlier as well. You know, when they knew it was going to be an at least category 4 storm? Say, a couple of days prior to it hitting land? Seems the history of category 4 hurricanes hitting land (cf. Andrew) might suggest an early call for support would be prudent. But this would assume Brown was at all competent.

And I'm still annoyed with the "convey a positive image" aspect. As I said before, the best way to convey a positive image would have been for FEMA to have actually been there in any form sooner than later.

Lynxx Pherrett | September 9, 2005 01:20 PM

Much more here. Short, generalized version - this request by Brown was for recovery phase doorknockers, not rescue personnel.

John Scalzi | September 9, 2005 02:36 PM

Good follow-through, Pherrett.

I will note this in no way changes my opinion that Michael Brown needs to be shot.

Brian Greenberg | September 9, 2005 04:05 PM


Oddly enough, largely the people who have most to lose by the blame being placed squarely upon them.

Actually, no.

Both Louisiana senators (Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter) wrote a letter to Senate leaders on 9/6 urging them to put aside partisan bickering in assigning blame over the federal response and focus on providing for victims. Here's the quote: "Please do not make the citizens of Louisiana a victim once again by allowing our immediate needs to be delayed by partisanship."

Also, sources close to Marty Evans (president of the Red Cross) also came out and explained how the Louisiana Dept. of Homeland Security (that's the state-run agency, not the federal one) asked them not to bring available food, water, and blankets into New Orleans just after the storm, because it would encourage people to stay in the city, and they wanted people to leave. They are apparently taking all of this criticism personally as well (since they work in tandem with FEMA so often).


Let me see if I get Brian's gist--even though the rescue efforts were FUBAR for a week, they're underway now, so we should stop blaming anyone or anything with a connection to the President?

No, you don't get my gist at all. I said, "the inherent need to blame George W. Bush for all of our ills seems to have overtaken the need to understand what happened." As more information comes out, it seems clear that local authorities dropped the ball big time, and exacerbated the slow response by FEMA.

But it's not enough to say "Bush screwed up and so did lots of other folks." Any mention of others at fault is automatically viewed a defense of the president. It's like Lileks wrote, "It’s come to this: suggesting that the local officials might be more responsible for, you know, local conditions is now a partisan position."

John Scalzi | September 9, 2005 06:57 PM

Brian Greenberg:

Your quotes are very nice, but I am entirely unconvinced that one cannot both assign blame and adequately tend to the immediate needs of the states affected by Katrina. They are two entirely different tasks. Therefore, I see no need to wait until those guilty of gross and horrible mismanagement are shuffled off somewhere in order to say "you are at fault."

Indeed, I would suggest to you that playing the blame game is beginning to pay off rich dividends. For example, that incompetent jackass Michael Brown has now been removed from having anything to do with the recovery effort, replaced by someone who -- shock and horror! -- has had some experience in disaster management. If you don't think the fierce, unrelenting and entirely appropriate blaming of Brown for his appaling incompetence wasn't a direct influence on his being pushed aside, I've got some Louisiana swampland to sell you.

"But it's not enough to say 'Bush screwed up and so did lots of other folks.' Any mention of others at fault is automatically viewed a defense of the president."

That's just silliness, and I don't think anyone here has done that, including myself -- I've noted more than one that there is more than enough failure to go around.

It is, however, a fair question to ask why I focus more on the Federal government response rather than the state and local response. For one thing, I am more familiar with the federal government's pattern of incompetence. For another, the local and state governments are not my government, but the Federal government is. I feel it's a better use of my time and efforts to comment on it primarily, because my tax dollars go to Washington, and not Baton Rouge or New Orleans (except to the extent they they first go through Washington).

Lynxx Pherrett | September 9, 2005 11:45 PM

"I will note this in no way changes my opinion that Michael Brown needs to be shot."

Like the blog is called, whatever.

I just find it odd that FEMA made it through 2004 without Brown's head ending up on a pike if he's as incompetent as claimed. At the end of the season, the National Geographic had an article titled, "2004 U.S. Hurricane Season Among Worst on Record."

It makes me consider that if Nagin and Blanco had been removed on the 27th (peacefully or otherwise), the NOLA response might have gone much better.

And maybe I missed something. After three days of Superdome, Superdome, Superdome; suddenly Chertoff and Brown were being lambasted about the conditions in the Convention Center. The first mention of the Convention Center on the CNN website is from Sept 1st. NOLA officials apparently didn't tell the feds about the Convention Center crowds until the afternoon of the 1st, and may not have started sending people there until late on the 31st. But because there's suddenly thousands of people at the Convention Center, the conditions there are Brown's fault.

John Scalzi | September 10, 2005 12:58 AM

"But because there's suddenly thousands of people at the Convention Center, the conditions there are Brown's fault."

I don't think people are blaming him for the initial Convention Center scene. I think people are blaming him for learning there were people at the convention center from CNN. The head of FEMA should possibly be more engaged than that. I also suggest that rather than simply waiting for NOLA officials to tell them where they're sending people, it might not be too much to expect FEMA to ask. Just think how much pain Brown could have saved himself if he'd asked, "so, uh... where you putting people?"

But perhaps I'm expecting too much from the man. But I think not. Incompetence of others does not excuse his incompetence, or the incompetence of the early FEMA response. FEMA could have made things better earlier by answering incompetence with competence. And yet it did not.

I too, wonder how he managed to get through 2004. Whatever the answer there, it doesn't look very good that he's going to make it through 2005. I'll allow you to bewail the unfairness of that one. I don't have much sympathy for the fellow, myself.

Lynxx Pherrett | September 11, 2005 02:11 AM

"Just think how much pain Brown could have saved himself if he'd asked, 'so, uh... where you putting people?'"

I'm sure he or his people did, and were told the same thing everybody else was told: the Superdome is the only shelter. When NOLA authorities later opened up the Convention Center they don't seem to have told anybody except the people they were putting there.

A Consolidated Operations Center can sometimes overcome those types of communications failures between agencies because personnel can overhear information that should have been told to them but wasn't, or are prompted to ask the right questions by something they overheard or saw.

FEMA ERT-1 rep to NOLA PD rep: Hey, how come you keep sending police to the Convention Center.?

NOLA PD: Oh, we've been sending civilians there rather than the Superdome since yesterday, and now there are gun battles going on.

There wasn't one. Nagin and NOLA PD set up their command center in the Hyatt across from New Orleans City Hall. Because it was a statewide disaster (although at this point it easy think it was Tornado Katrina and it only hit New Orleans) the FEMA emergency operations center for Louisiana was in Baton Rouge.

"But perhaps I'm expecting too much from the man...FEMA could have made things better earlier by answering incompetence with competence. And yet it did not."

I don't know, but I do think you are overestimating the authority and material resources of both FEMA and the federal government. So long as Blanco and Nagin refused to relinguish control, they and their subordinates were "in-charge" of the disaster response in LA and NO, respectively, not FEMA. That misconception is the fault of Brown, Bush, and, in some part, the media.

FEMA basically coordinates federal support to try and fill requests by the state and/or local incident command authorities. They can spend federal money to contract material support for those requests. They can coordinate NGO support. But, they have no command authority over anything except their own assets unless that authority has been ceded to them by the nominal owner. As long as the governor hasn't surrendered authority or been relieved under the Insurrection Act, FEMA can only suggest courses of action during the disaster response.

Blanco demonstrated she was both unwilling to cede authority and reluctant to use it (she wouldn't sign an executive order comandeering school buses from unaffected parishes until the 31st or 1st. The federal government doesn't have much of a bus fleet. For FEMA to provide the buses they have to contract with somebody like Greyhound, they can't just confiscate the buses.)

Every complaint about "the government" so far gets translated into "FEMA" but the details of the incidents almost always show the culprits were city/parish/state police or the LNG in state service. (Who kept the Red Cross from delivering food and water to the Superdome? Col. Jay Mayeaux, the deputy director of the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness". Who closed the Crescent City Connection so transportationless evacuees couldn't leave the city? Arthur Lawson, chief of the City of Gretna Police Department. Did Brown have any authority over Mayeaux or Lawson, could he countermand their orders? No. Did and could Blanco? Yes. Did she? No.)

I blame Brown (and his predecessors) and Bush (along with prior presidents) for not making absolutely clear to public that "in-charge of the federal disaster response" does not normally mean "in-charge of the disaster response" or "in-charge of the primary disaster response" unless the incident occured on a federal reservation. FEMA can try to assist, and can tap federal assets that bring special capabilities beyond that of local/state governments, but they generally have no more authority over the disaster response than the Red Cross does.

I would be more quick to blame Brown for not "answering incompetence with competence" if it weren't for the impression that beyond the mere incomptence of the state/local officials they were also obstinate and obstructionist. I can blame Brown for the impression, deserved or not, that FEMA is arrogant; an impression or fact that might contribute to state/local officials obstinance.

Brown also deserves blame for underestimating the threat Katrina posed and failing to expect the unexpected. Brown and Bush deserve blame for being unable to articulate a concept without leaving inane soundbites to be grabbed. Take the levees. Built to a Category 3 spec does not mean they are expected to collapse in a Cat 4 or 5. It means they are built to hold back water of the height expected from the storm surge of Cat 3 hurricane. Higher surges from a Cat 4 or 5 would be expected to top them, not necessairly topple them. IOW, an 18 ft levee hit with a 20 ft surge would let 2 ft of water in and produce some localized flooding in the lowest areas, but the levee would still be standing when the surge subsided. The folks who said the levee breachs were unexpected or unpredicted are basically correct but incomplete. The levee breaches were always a possibility, even if not expected under the predicted conditions.

Lynxx Pherrett | September 11, 2005 02:23 AM

Found it.

Army Corps personnel, in charge of maintaining the levees in New Orleans, started to secure the locks, floodgates and other equipment, said Greg Breerwood, deputy district engineer for project management at the Army Corps of Engineers.

"We knew if it was going to be a Category 5, some levees and some flood walls would be overtopped," he said. "We never did think they would actually be breached."

John Scalzi | September 11, 2005 09:44 AM

Lynxx Pherrett:

"I would be more quick to blame Brown for not 'answering incompetence with competence' if it weren't for the impression that beyond the mere incomptence of the state/local officials they were also obstinate and obstructionist."

Possibly, although the dissatisfaction with the FEMA response extends beyond Louisiana and New Orleans:

BILOXI, Mississippi (CNN) -- Almost two weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, some of the cities hardest hit by the storm are waiting for more help.

"Clearly the FEMA response has been slow," Matthew Avara, mayor of Pascagoula, Mississippi, told CNN Saturday night.

"We got a lot of good people on the ground here that are with FEMA and with the state agencies," he said. "They wear their badges, and they look good. But unfortunately, we just not have seen all the assets and all the resources that we need in our city."


Slidell, Louisiana, Mayor Ben Morris also slammed FEMA Saturday, saying when the storm hit, "everything we did was on our own."

The situation was gradually changing, he said.

"It's been quite slow, but we do have some of their folks on the ground, and they're working real hard," he said. "Hopefully, they'll get up to speed sometime soon."

The New York Times, LA Times and Washington Post are all running long pieces today on the disaster response at all levels; no one comes off particularly well (a blog post with links to all three is here).

Daniel W. | September 24, 2005 10:53 PM

I tried so hard to get this article I wrote published in a newspaper, or really anything, after Katrina hit... but no one would take it... I still don't understand...I had anyone/everyone I knew read it...and they all said it was excellent, they checked the facts...I don't know to think anymore... I wonder if they(media) were afraid at that time of what it meant if I could see through what was happening as I have no current links with mainstream media... at any rate, here it is... If you want to post it somewhere else or publish it, please write to me first, and i should get back to you w/in 12 hrs... Its just so I know that it went somewhere other than the back of my head...
FEMA Budget Terrorism
Dan Washington
As a federal agency originally tasked with aiding those suffering from natural disasters, FEMA can trace its roots back 200 years. It has seen the country through the worst of times. Until now. If you think you have heard a lot of complaints about FEMA by those suffering from Katrina, you are not alone. The growing awareness of the sluggish response by Federal Emergency Management Agency has prompted many to question its agenda. Indeed, this has been something of a growing concern by many lawmakers and citizens across the country.
It took until Saturday for any semblance of lawfulness to be seen in New Orleans, a nightmare for those watching, and a symbol of the suffering the country has been through. A disaster that began Sunday night in Louisiana took FEMA until the latter part of the week to respond to. Despite FEMA’s fervent denial of this, the reality of the situation can be drawn by the pleas of New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin during the most desperate of hours. Looting, rapes, heavy-weapons violence, and chaos were the only things that were evident of the Federal Government’s involvement in New Orleans, or rather lack thereof. When asked about the status of the Convention Center during a press meeting, the FEMA director acted shocked when informed of their dire status. This lack of coordination, funding, and perhaps even interest in serving the citizens of the United States is not something that should come as a shock to anyone who has looked at the budget of FEMA.
In the years after 9/11, FEMA has been transformed from a humanitarian agency to an agency charged with yet another mission of terrorism tasks. Yes, indeed its budget has quadrupled in the last half-decade, but, at the same time, the amount of resources allocated to disaster control has fallen. A look at the budget of 2000, in the ho-hum era of domestic security, allocated 2.5 billion dollars to FEMA for natural disaster resources. In 2003, 6.4 billion dollars were allocated to FEMA, but only 1.8 billion of that was actually given to disaster prevention, a drop of over 25%. This sort of funding obviously shows how much Bush and Congress care about protecting our fair country. Obviously we should put everything to terrorism prevention, and just forget about what we are trying to protect to begin with. This sort of policy will only become more common place if the fervor over terrorism and the Middle East continues. It is only a matter of time until the terrorists win by simply sitting at home doing nothing, and letting us continue to escalate our obsession.
The answer to all of this is to separate FEMA from any terrorism prevention and/or recovery and allocate all terrorism responsibilities to one agency. ONE agency, not jointly handing out duties to the NSA, Defense Department, Pentagon, CIA, Secret Services, Army, Navy, or any other military force. It is time for all terrorism operations to all be in house, not a dozen. This way we can quickly get our lives back on track when disasters like Katrina happen.

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