Sunday, October 02, 2005

Hit 'Em With a Chair

It's been over a month now, and hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast victims are still homeless and residing in shelters of various sizes and locations. After the patched levees were overcome again by Hurricane Rita, New Orleans is still pumping flood waters out of sections of the city, although some residents were allowed back into the dry parts of the city to assess the damage to their homes.

Last week the misnamed bipartisan Congressional committee began taking testimony on what went wrong in the face of the tragic storm. Predictably, Michael Brown (former head of FEMA, and still on the payroll as a consultant)claimed that the whole mess wasn't his fault, it was the fault of Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin. Even the NY Times wasn't buying his excuses.

FEMA's job is to coordinate disaster relief, broken into four areas: preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation. The key word is coordinate, and Mr. Brown repeated it time and again during his hearing. "FEMA is a coordinating agency. We are not a law enforcement agency," he told lawmakers.

But according to emergency management experts across America, that is no excuse for Mr. Brown's failures. The federal role is to make things happen. ...Let's look at FEMA's mandate to see what should have been done differently, with an eye to doing better in the future:

Preparedness: A little over a year ago, FEMA directed federal and state officials to conduct a $1 million simulation of what a Category 3 hurricane - this one was nicknamed Hurricane Pam - would do if it hit southeast Louisiana. The draft report, finished in December 2004, predicted that floodwaters would surge over levees, creating high casualties and forcing a mass evacuation. It said hundreds of thousands of homes would be destroyed, a half-million people left homeless, and "all 40 medical facilities in the impacted area isolated and useless," according to The Associated Press. Local officials, the report said, would quickly be overwhelmed.

Mr. Brown had the report for several months before Hurricane Katrina. Yet in the days before Katrina made landfall just east of New Orleans, with the National Weather Service saying it was a Category 4 storm, then a Category 5, then back to a Category 4, he decided against a wide-scale deployment of FEMA workers. He put small rescue and communications teams along the Gulf Coast. But it was not until Aug. 29, after the storm hit, that Mr. Brown asked the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, to send at least 1,000 federal workers to help with the rescue.

Response: At 8:14 a.m. on Aug. 29, shortly after Katrina hit land, the New Orleans office of the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning that predicted three to eight feet of water from a levee breach along the Industrial Canal at Tennessee Street. That was the flood that quickly submerged much of the Lower Ninth Ward and nearby areas, trapping thousands of people. Shortly after, the 17th Street Canal levee also was breached.

Despite the National Weather Service report, not to mention the Hurricane Pam simulation, it was not until the next day that federal officials in charge of response noticed that levees had been breached. Mr. Chertoff suggested on NBC that news coverage misled him. "I remember on Tuesday morning picking up newspapers, and I saw headlines, 'New Orleans Dodged the Bullet,' " he said.

Recovery No one can forget the mostly poor, mostly black refugees in New Orleans begging for help for days from the Superdome and convention center, where they ended up because many did not have the means to leave town. This is one of the points on which Mr. Brown was most eager to blame local authorities, even private citizens. "And while my heart goes out to people on fixed incomes, it is primarily a state and local responsibility. And in my opinion, it's the responsibility of faith-based organizations, of churches and charities and others to help those people," he said in one wildly cynical bit of sworn testimony before the House.

Mitigation: It's too soon to judge FEMA on how well it helps Gulf Coast residents rebuild their lives. Its job is to pull together all the myriad elements of President Bush's program. Whether it does that satisfactorily remains to be seen.

One thing is certain: Mr. Brown's not-my-job strategy is not the answer.
[Emphasis added]

Now that Mr. Brown has been forced our as head of FEMA, I think we should take a closer look at Mr. Chertoff's role in all of this. Although I'm glad that someone in the Bush Administration reads the newspapers, Mr. Chertoff also needs to read the reports and emails sent to him by professionals inside his department, especially when it involves the welfare of millions of Americans. Perhaps he should spend less time designing secure passports and more time overseeing the security of this country.


Blogger Elmo said...

No major newspaper printed a headline that literally said New Orleans "dodged a bullet," as Mr. Chertoff claimed.

That is from The Wall Sreet Journal

6:41 AM  
Blogger scout prime said...

great post thanks

11:22 PM  

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