"Considering the dire circumstances that we have in New Orleans, virtually a city that has been destroyed, things are going relatively well." -- Michael Brown, September 1
"We just learned of the convention center -- we being the federal government -- today." -- Michael Brown to Ted Koppel, September 1. Koppel replied, "Don't you guys watch television? Don't you guys listen to the radio? Our reporters have been reporting on it for more than just today."
"I'm ashamed of America. I'm ashamed of our government. I'm outraged by the lack of response by our federal government." -- US representative Carolyn Kilpatrick
"Katrina has proved that federal disaster help is vital, and that Mr. Brown and his team of advance men can't do the job. What America needs are federal disaster relief people who actually know something about disaster relief." -- New York Times editorial
Just who is this person responsible for leading the federal government's response to this disaster? Michael Brown, the head of FEMA from December 2002 until recently, is a former lawyer, a former assistant city manager, and most critically, GOP fundraiser and former FEMA head Joe Allbaugh's college roommate and close pal. (Allbaugh himself managed Bush's 2000 election campaign before being named FEMA chief in January 2001, and is currently taking advantage of the Katrina debacle by whipping up business for clients who want to become involved in the reconstruction. Allbaugh made millions doing a similar business in Iraq.) What was Brown doing before being named to head FEMA? He was forced to resign as the commissioner of judges and stewards of the International Arabian Horse Association because of incompetence, floods of lawsuits, and mounting financial disarray. (The Bush adminstration wrongly reported him as being part of the US Olympic Committee.) You tell me how this man's experience as a corrupt horse association commissioner, a failed lawyer (more on that later), and a roommate of a GOP fundraiser qualifies him to lead the federal government's emergency response organization. I can't make the connection. His former colleagues at the IAHA describe him as "an unmitigated f*cking disaster," and said his "incompetence" ruined the IAHA to the point where it had to change its name and combine itself with another association just to survive. One former colleague writes, "[H]ow the hell did his prior job experience prepare Brown to head FEMA? Well, judging by his agency's performance over the past few days...it didn't."
But should we fire just Brown? His deputies are, if anything, even more unqualified to serve than he is. Both are Bush campaign hacks given jobs they are unfit for. According to the New York Daily News, "While Brown ran horse shows in his last private-sector job, FEMA's No. 2 man, deputy director and chief of staff Patrick Rhode, was an advance man for the Bush-Cheney campaign and White House. He also did short stints at the Commerce Department and Small Business Administration. Rhode's biography posted on FEMA's Web site doesn't indicate he has any real experience in emergency response. In addition, the agency's former third-ranking official, deputy chief of staff Scott Morris, was a PR expert who worked for Maverick Media, the Texas outfit that produced TV and radio spots for the Bush-Cheney campaign. In June, Morris moved to Florida to become FEMA's long-term recovery director. 'The Bush administration has apparently transformed FEMA from a professional, world-class emergency responder into a dumping ground for former campaign staff and political hacks,' said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan). FEMA also is hampered by several midlevel and regional director's jobs currently held by acting directors. 'Just like our military, FEMA should be immune to this kind of political staffing. It should be run by career emergency response professionals,' Maloney added. Traditionally, the Commerce and Labor departments have long been Washington's dumping ground for presidential pals and campaign operatives - not the disaster relief agency.
Government sources blame Bush's first FEMA director, Joe Allbaugh, with turning FEMA into a patronage shop. He was chief of staff when Bush was Texas' governor and later headed the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign. 'He stacked the deck with political appointees,' a knowledgeable source said of Allbaugh, who had a reputation for running an efficient FEMA operation until he left the job in March 2003." "It was a political patronage job" for Allbaugh, confirms Michael Lindell, senior scholar at Texas A&M University's Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center. In other words, FEMA's highest management is stacked with campaign cronies with no emergency management expertise whatsoever. The Washington Post goes further, finding even more campaign cronies in the ranks of FEMA's highest officials with no expertise except giving service during election campaigns and raising money for Bush, most notably Deputy Chief of Staff Brooks Altshuler, a former campaign operative, along with former Nebraska lieutenant governor David Maurstad and former campaign fundraiser and lobbyist Daniel Craig. The real work in FEMA is being done by "acting" officials, most of whom are overworked leftovers from the Clinton administration. FEMA "has gone downhill within the [Department of Homeland Security], drained of resources and leadership," said I.M. Destler, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. "The crippling of FEMA was one important reason why it failed." The Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that promotes careers in federal government, ranked FEMA last of 28 agencies studied in 2003. Charlie Bernhardt of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 4,000 FEMA employees, calls Brown a "nice guy" but says he is in "way over his head." New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls Brown's appointment "raw cronyism." Lawmakers from Hillary Clinton to Trent Lott are calling for Brown's resignation or firing. (Boston Herald/Knight Ridder/HorsesAssDHS/DailyKos, CBS, St. Petersburg Times)
In addition, two lawyers who played key roles in the 2000 Florida recount battle for Bush, Reynold Hoover and Mark Wallace, were rewarded for their efforts with plum positions at FEMA. Neither lawyer has any experience in disaster management. Hoover, a longtime "explosives expert" with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who became a lawyer in 1996, is still with FEMA as its director of national security coordination; Wallace left the Bush administration in 2004 to become deputy manager of the president's re-election campaign, and is now a lobbyist. Even more telling, the FEMA official directly in charge of the Katrina response, Dan Craig, the director of FEMA's Recovery Division, is another Bush campaign crony, a campaign advisor, fundraiser, research assistant, and lobbyist. Craig, like so many of Bush's FEMA appointees, has no emergency management experience whatsoever. Craig did, however, spearhead FEMA's 2004 decision to award $31 million in FEMA relief funds marked for Hurricane Frances to Florida residents who were not affected by the hurricane, a decision that many believe was an attempt to win votes for Bush's re-election in that key battleground state. Florida state records show that the Bush administration funnelled FEMA money to key battleground states before the presidential elections in 2004 as well.
"It's not surprising to learn that [Republicans] played politics with the hurricanes that tragically affected hundreds of thousands of Floridians last year," says Josh Earnest, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. FEMA consultant Glenn Garcelon wrote a three-page memo titled "Hurricane Frances -- Thoughts and Suggestions," on Sept. 2, 2004. With Bush barely edging Kerry in the polls, and Florida a key to winning Bush's re-election, Garcelon wrote that FEMA should pay careful attention to how it is portrayed by the public, conveying "the team effort theme at every opportunity" alongside state and local officials, the insurance and construction industries, and relief agencies such as the Red Cross. "What FEMA cannot afford to do is back itself into a corner by feeling it has to be the sole explainer and defender for everything that goes wrong," he wrote. "Further, this is not what the President would want. Plenty is going to go wrong, and his Department of Homeland Security does not want to assume responsibility for all of it." Garcelon, a former FEMA employee, recommended that "top-level people from FEMA and the White House need to develop a communication strategy and an agreed-upon set of themes and communications objectives. Communication consultants from the President's re-election campaign should be brought in. Above all, everybody's got to understand that no amount of flogging DHS/ FEMA will insure that the recovery will go perfectly. This is going to be a huge mess. The public needs to be prepared for it." Garcelon is a senior official of the Fluor Corporation, one of the biggest beneficiaries of Bush administration largess in Iraq and elsewhere. Dan McLaughlin, spokesman for Democratic senator Bill Nelson, says he is not surprised "that a consultant for the Bush administration would consider politics before the needs of hurricane victims. ...The very first points [of Garcelon's memo] have to do with shirking blame and calling in the president's re-election experts. It only serves to underscore why we have to investigate how FEMA spent the hurricane money because there are just too many questions."
We now know that Brown waited until five hours after Katrina made landfall south of New Orleans to order the mobilization of 1000 Homeland Security employees to the stricken region. He gave them two days to report for duty. He also stressed that one of their primary duties was to -- you'll like this -- "convey a positive image" about the government's response for victims. The hell with the realities, but marketing and public relations are all-important, eh, Chief? The memo to DHS head Michael Chertoff was characterized as lacking urgency. Brown also claimed that, 24 hours after the news that thousands were trapped inside the New Orleans convention center, that his department had just learned of their existence minutes before.
And, ultimately, it wasn't Brown's incompetence that crippled FEMA's response. Instead, the ultimate responsibility lies with DHS head Michael Chertoff, Brown's boss. According to an unearthed federal memo, Chertoff refused to order a federal response for days after the strike. Chertoff had the authority to order FEMA to begin disaster response efforts even before Katrina made landfall; Brown had limited authority until 36 hours after the strike, sometime in the late afternoon or evening of August 30, when Chertoff designated Brown as the "principal federal official" in charge of relief efforts. The National Response Plan designates Chertoff, not Brown, as the federal official in charge of handling national disaster efforts. According to the memo, Chertoff didn't shift that power to Brown until late afternoon or evening on Aug. 30, about 36 hours after Katrina hit Louisiana and Mississippi. That same memo suggests that Chertoff may have been confused about his lead role in disaster response and that of his department. "As you know, the President has established the 'White House Task Force on Hurricane Katrina Response,'" the memo reads. "He will meet with us tomorrow to launch this effort. The Department of Homeland Security, along with other Departments, will be part of the task force and will assist the Administration with its response to Hurricane Katrina." Chertoff wrote the memo and sent it to the secretaries of defense, health and human services and other key federal agencies. On the day that Chertoff wrote the memo, Bush was in San Diego presiding over a ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Chertoff's memo for the first time declared Katrina an "Incident of National Significance," a key designation that triggers swift federal coordination. The following afternoon, Bush met with his Cabinet, then appeared before TV cameras in the White House Rose Garden to announce the government's planned action. On August 31, the Department of Defense activated its own Task Force Katrina...but their trucks and troops did not arrive in the stricken region until September 3. White House officials refused to explain why Chertoff waited so long to declare the disaster an "Incident of National Significance," why he refused to direct the national emergency response on August 27, or why Bush appointed a separate task force for the disaster.
Chertoff's hesitation and Bush's creation of a task force both contradict the National Response Plan and previous presidential directives that specify what the secretary of homeland security is assigned to do without further presidential orders. The goal of the National Response Plan is to provide a streamlined framework for swiftly delivering federal assistance when a disaster -- caused by terrorists or Mother Nature -- is too big for local officials to handle. The White House's response was little more than spin, insisting that DHS and FEMA, along with Chertoff and Brown, responded with a "tremendous sense of urgency" to "the greatest response to a disaster in the nation's history."
The Chertoff memo indicated that the response to Katrina wasn't left to disaster professionals, but was run out of the White House, said George Haddow, a former deputy chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration and the co-author of an emergency management textbook. "It shows that the president is running the disaster, the White House is running it as opposed to Brown or Chertoff," Haddow said. Brown "is a convenient fall guy. He's not the problem really. The problem is a system that was marginalized." A former FEMA director under President Reagan expressed shock by the inaction that Chertoff's memo suggested. It showed that Chertoff "does not have a full appreciation for what the country is faced with -- nor does anyone who waits that long," said General Julius Becton, who was FEMA director from 1985-1989. "Anytime you have a delay in taking action, there's a potential for losing lives," Becton said. "I have no idea how many lives we're talking about. ...I don't understand why, except that they were inefficient." Chertoff's Aug. 30 memo came on the heels of a memo from Brown, written several hours after Katrina made landfall, showing that the FEMA director was waiting for Chertoff's permission to get help from others within the massive department. In that memo, Brown requested Chertoff's "assistance to make available DHS employees willing to deploy as soon as possible." It asked for another 1,000 homeland security workers within two days and 2,000 within a week. The four-paragraph memo ended with Brown thanking Chertoff "for your consideration in helping us meet our responsibilities in this near catastrophic event."
According to the National Response Plan, which was unveiled in January by Chertoff's predecessor, Tom Ridge, the secretary of homeland security is supposed to declare an Incident of National Significance when a catastrophic event occurs. "standard procedures regarding requests for assistance may be expedited or, under extreme circumstances, suspended in the immediate aftermath of an event of catastrophic magnitude," according to the plan, which evolved from earlier plans and lessons learned after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "Notification and full coordination with the States will occur, but the coordination process must not delay or impede the rapid deployment and use of critical resources." "Clearly this is the first test. It certainly did not pass with flying colors," Frank J. Cilluffo, the director of George Washington University's Homeland Security Planning Institute, said of the National Response Plan.
Brown's only experience with any sort of emergency management came, according to the White House's biography of Brown, when he oversaw emergency services as assistant city manager for Edmond, Oklahoma from 1975-1978. The biography fails to note that Brown was still an undergraduate at the time of this position. So how serious could this job have been for it to be held by a full-time student who only holds a high school diploma? At the time Brown held the position, Edmond was a town of only about 25,000. What kind of emergency management duties did he actually perform? And what kind of administration selects someone with this as their only emergency management experience to head the federal government's top emergency management organization? (Disgracefully, Democrat Joe Lieberman, during Brown's Senate hearings for the position in 2002, hailed Brown's Edmonds experience as "particularly useful.") One blogger speculated that the position was a "part time summer job, hanging with the fire dept and mayor's office, making coffee and going out to pick up lunch." As it turns out, a prophetic speculation, given the current revelations about Brown's inexperience and incompetence.
Brown is, apparently, a graduate of the Oklahoma City University School of Law, an obscure little institution that wasn't even accredited through AALS until 2003. (Brown says he graduated from Central State University, now the University of Central Oklahoma -- see below.) His legal career amounted to little more than shilling for a powerful Oklahoma family of prominent Republicans between 1980 and 1987. In 1988 Brown was thrashed in a Congressional election by the incumbent Democrat, and in 1991 he moved to Colorado, where he became commissioner of judges and stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association. This position, which never made his FEMA bio, was Brown's full-time job from 1991 to 2001, where he was known as "the Czar" for his love of wielding power until he was fired over charges of impropriety. (The White House rewrote the position to make Brown seem as if he was part of the US Olympic Committee, a gross exaggeration.) Brown himself claimed that he spent most of his adult life practicing law in Colorado, a flat lie. No evidence of his legal work can be found in Colorado.
Yet four years ago, this failed lawyer, freshly fired from his job with a horse association, found himself named to manage FEMA. As The New Republic observes, "It's clear that hiring Brown to run FEMA was an act of gross recklessness, given his utter lack of qualifications for the job. What's less clear is the answer to the question of exactly what, given Brown's real biography, he is qualified to do." The article concludes, " When he left the IAHA, he was a 47-year-old with a very thin resume and no job. Yet he was also what's known in the Mafia as a 'connected guy.' That such a person could end up in one of the federal government's most important positions tells you all you need to know about how the Bush administration works -- or, rather, doesn't." Former IAHA colleague Karl Hart recalls, "He said for a couple years he was going to get a position in Washington. I was frankly shocked." A partner in the law firm Brown formerly worked with, Stephen Jones, remembers firing Brown years ago, finding him lacking: "He did not develop the way we wanted," Jones recalls, explaining why Brown was only 2 of 37 employees fired when the firm split. "He was average. Maybe that's the best way to put it."
In 2002, when FBI agents vetting Brown's background showed up and informed Jones that Brown was being considered to head FEMA, an incredulous Jones responded, "You're surely kidding?" And conservative eminence William Kristol says, "The more one learns about him, one is surprised that he's in that job in the first place." How did Brown get the job? Because former FEMA head Joe Allbaugh is Brown's former college roommate and drinking buddy; after naming Brown his deputy director, Allbaugh stepped down in 2003, allowing Brown to take the slot. Charlie Bernhardt of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 4,000 FEMA employees, calls Brown a "nice guy" but says he is in "way over his head."
And Brown -- or the White House -- is lying about what crumbs of experience he does have. According to Claudia Deakins, the head of public relations in Edmond, Brown was not "an assistant city manager." Brown was, instead, "an assistant to the city manager," a position more like an intern. Brown had no one reporting to him, had no authority whatsoever, and was more of a glorified gofer than anything else. His legal experience has also been padded. For one, it isn't quite certain where he went to law school -- Brown says Central State University, but the FEMA website says Oklahoma City University School of Law. Neither school was accredited as a law school at the time Brown attended. Brown claims he was on the Dean's List at CSU (now renamed the University of Central Oklahoma), and also claims he won the "Outstanding Political Science Professor" at CSU. Brown was never a professor at the school, and could not have won such an award. As for his making Dean's List, no record of the accomplishment can be found. His resume as posted on FindLaw is equally suspect. He was named the outstanding political science senior at Central State, and was an adjunct professor at Oklahoma City School of Law. according to the posting. Both claims are false. He also claimed to have been the director of the Oklahoma Christian Home, a nursing home in Edmond. He was never director at that facility, nor was he, as he later insisted, a member of its board of directors. In fact, no one at that facility knows who he is.
This is not the first disaster Brown has bungled. According to his FEMA biography, "Under Secretary Brown has led Homeland Security's response to more than 164 presidentially declared disasters and emergencies, including the 2003 Columbia Shuttle disaster and the California wildfires in 2003." The 2003 wildfires lasted seven weeks and burned three-quarters of a million acres. By the time they were extinguished, 3,600 homes had been destroyed, 22 people were killed, and $2.5 billion in damages were amassed. The wildfire was able to spread so rapidly in part because of FEMA's earlier refusal to declare a disaster area in Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties last spring because of the bark beetle infestation. The bugs killed drought-stricken trees over 415,000 acres of forest, making them particularly prone to fire. On Oct. 24, just hours before the Southern California wildfires began to rage out of control, the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied a state application for $430 million to clear dead trees from fire-prone areas. The letter came six months after the governor's office warned the agency that the state considered the dead trees an immediate threat to lives and property. Brown refused to declare the area a disaster, in the face of requests from California governor Gray Davis, senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and ten House members (seven of whom were Republicans).
Veteran FEMA observers watched the agency go downhill in 2001, when Bush replaced veteran FEMA director James Lee Witt, an expert on emergency management, with political crony and GOP operative Joe Allbaugh. "It was a political patronage job" for Allbaugh, who had no experience in emergency management but had been Bush's chief of staff when he was governor of Texas, said Michael Lindell, senior scholar at Texas A&M University's Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center. Allbaugh wasted little time in hiring his old college chum, Michael Brown, to be FEMA's general counsel, a post for which Brown's limited legal career had not begun to prepare him. Anticipating Katrina's impact, Mr. Bush declared a state of emergency in Louisiana on Sunday, a day before the storm hit. "Then, there was a black hole for five days. I don't understand it," said Lindell, noting that until September 2, the federal response seemed scattered and unfocused.
Former president Bill Clinton oversaw the top-to-bottom reform of FEMA after its failure to respond quickly and efficiently to the Hurricane Andrew debacle of 1992. On August 24, 1992, five months before Clinton took office, Andrew laid waste to a swath of homes and businesses across southern Florida; FEMA did not respond to that disaster for three critical days. "Yet, for the first three days, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for coordinating federal disaster relief, was nowhere to be found," wrote the Washington Monthly in a 1995 article. "And when FEMA did finally arrive, its incompetence further delayed relief efforts. Food and water distribution centers couldn't meet the overwhelming need; lines literally stretched for miles. Mobile hospitals arrived late. In everything it did, FEMA appeared to live up to the description once given to it by South Carolina Sen. Ernest Hollings: 'the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever known.'" Sounds familiar, doesn't it? It fell to Bush's secretary of transportation, Andrew Card, to circumvent FEMA and send military teams into the area to begin disaster relief operations once it was determined that Florida's own response efforts were horribly inadequate, and FEMA was doing nothing but hindering the situation. But after Clinton reformed the bureau, it began to operate properly, beginning with its response to the major flooding of the Mississippi River in the summer of 1993, mere months after Clinton took office. Said Congressman Norman Mineta, then chair of the committee that oversees the agency, "FEMA has delivered finally on its promise to stand with the American people when floods or hurricanes or earthquakes devastate their communities."
Before Clinton, FEMA had a sorry history of Republican-led cronyism under Reagan and Bush, and a history of failing to respond to disasters in any sort of acceptable fashion. FEMA was, in the words of former advisory board member and defense analyst Lawrence Korb, a "political dumping ground," a backwater reserved for political contributors or friends with no experience in emergency management. The first President Bush, for example, appointed Wallace Stickney, head of New Hampshire's Department of Transportation, to lead FEMA. Stickney's only apparent qualification for the post was that he was a close friend and former next door neighbor of Bush Chief of Staff John Sununu. Throughout his time there, Stickney was nearly invisible, except for regular trips to Capitol Hill to defend the agency against its many critics. FEMA's response to the 1990 Loma Prieta, California earthquake led a disgusted Mineta to observe that FEMA "could screw up a two-car parade." The Monthly reports, "One of the most maddening problems with FEMA, the critics said, was the constant bureaucratic delay. FEMA workers would routinely hold up vital aid requests because the proper forms were not filled out or certain signatures had not been included. 'If we had asked for a certain resource this way we could have gotten it,' said Kate Hale, director of the Dade County Emergency Services of her experience after Hurricane Andrew, 'but FEMA would say that we hadn't framed the question properly.... FEMA's employees appeared to be terrified at making a mistake, so they'd rather do nothing than make a mistake because a mistake could cost them their career.'"
In 1990, a single error on a form requesting aid for the impending Hurricane Hugo caused FEMA relief efforts to be held back until days after the hurricane laid waste to Puerto Rico. As for its response to Andrew, Sam Jones, the mayor of Franklin, Louisiana, said he was shocked to find that the damage assessors sent to his town a week after Hurricane Andrew had no disaster experience whatsoever. "They were political appointees, members of county Republican parties hired on an as-needed basis.... They were terribly inexperienced." Compounding its problems was its focus on what used to be its prime mission: preparing the country for nuclear attack. A GAO study found that FEMA had far-reaching powers that it never bothered to use; instead of having to wait for specific requests for aid from states, and instead of merely doling out grants for relief efforts, FEMA could take a far more proactive role in responding to natural disasters.
Clinton's new head of FEMA, James Lee Witt, who had previously led Arkansas's Office of Emergency Services, took the GAO study to heart and oversaw the reorganization of the agency. Witt tossed out hundreds of political cronies and brought in professionals with extensive emergency management experience. A dozen unneeded regional offices were closed. Hundreds of pointless and bureaucratically crippling restrictions and guidelines were stricken. Most importantly, Witt redirected the agency away from focusing on the now-unlikely impact of Soviet nuclear strikes, and refocused the agency towards handling natural disasters. The agency showed its abilities during the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City. A half-hour after the bomb ripped through the Murrah Building, Tom Feuerborne, director of Oklahoma's Civil Emergency Management Department, called FEMA. By 2 that afternoon, a FEMA response team was on-site. By 8 that evening, Witt himself was there directing rescue efforts. By the next afternoon, FEMA search-and-rescue teams were on-site, assisting Oklahoma first responders' own efforts. Said Feuerborne, "My office is very happy with the quick response of FEMA." Ellen Gordon, administrator of Iowa's Emergency Management Division, remembers that in 1993, when flood waters threatened much of Des Moines, FEMA teams were quick to respond. "Nothing sticks out in our minds that we had to haggle over or justify," said Gordon. "Whenever we asked for assistance it was there."
The story would be different beginning in 2001, when Witt and his staff were displaced by the incoming Bush administration and replaced by a raft of GOP cronies and fundraisers. Heading up FEMA's destruction was new chief Joe Allbaugh. Allbaugh, whose experience was in raising money for the Republican Party and who had headed Bush's 2000 campaign, was a major figure in the "Funeralgate" scandal which had plagued Bush since his second term as Governor of Texas. Both Bush and Allbaugh, who was Bush's chief of staff in Texas, had tried unsuccessfully to intimidate whistleblower Eliza May from bringing suit against SCI, the corporation with strong Bush ties who had overseen the mismanagement of hundreds of dead people, including stacking them like cordwood in crypts and failing to keep up with proper identification. Allbaugh helped put together the $200,000 settlement offer that made "Funeralgate" go away. (Allbaugh was also partly responsible for bringing in SCI to handle the New Orleans dead after Katrina.) Allbaugh brought a new ethic to FEMA, to strip down the formerly efficient agency and privatize many of its disaster relief efforts. Major FEMA initiatives such as Project Impact were dismantled, and FEMA reverted to its former self -- a corrupt, incompetent agency stuffed with political cronies and staffers with no emergency management experience. To make matters worse, FEMA was rolled into the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, where it was given a new focus: preparing for terrorist strikes. When Allbaugh left FEMA, he saw to it that his former college roommate, Michael Brown, who was coming off 11 years of experience with the International Arabian Horse Association (where he was labeled by an IAHA insider as "an unmitigated, total f*cking disaster"), would be given the job.
Under Bush, FEMA would become merely another agency doling out political favors. After Hurricane Frances and other hurricanes struck Florida in 2004, FEMA head Michael Brown authorized payments in excess of $31 million to Florida residents unaffected by the hurricanes, in a direct effort to win votes for Bush in the November 2004 presidential election. Stories by the Washington Post and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel confirm that "Homeland Security sources told the Post that after the hurricanes, Brown 'and his allies [recommended] him to succeed Tom Ridge as Homeland Security secretary because of their claim that he helped deliver Florida to President Bush by efficiently responding to the Florida hurricanes.'" The Sun-Sentinel reported, "As the second hurricane in less than a month bore down on Florida last fall, a federal [FEMA] consultant predicted a 'huge mess' that could reflect poorly on President Bush and suggested that his re-election staff be brought in to minimize any political liability, records show. Two weeks later, a Florida official summarizing the hurricane response wrote that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was handing out housing assistance 'to everyone who needs it without asking for much information of any kind.'" The politically directed payoffs were orchestrated by Governor Jeb Bush, according to e-mails from Bush's office. DHS's Inspector General Richard Skinner confirmed the political payoffs of the emergency assistance after a four-month investigation of FEMA. The Sun-Sentinel reported that, according to Skinner's investigation, "Miami-Dade County residents collected Hurricane Frances aid for belongings they didn't own, temporary housing they never requested and cars worth far less than the government paid, according to a federal audit that questions millions in storm payouts." Michael Brown claimed that a "computer glitch" caused the massive overpayments, and lied about NOAA weather reports that he said showed far greater hurricane damage than actually existed.
According to the Sun-Sentinel, "The review found waste and poor controls in every level of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's assistance program and challenges the designation of Miami-Dade as a disaster area when the county 'did not incur any hurricane force winds, tornados or other adverse weather conditions that would cause widespread damage.'" Republican senator Susan Collins observed that Brown "approved massive payouts to replace thousands of televisions, air conditioners, beds and other furniture, as well as a number of cars, without receipts, or proof of ownership or damage, and based solely on verbal statements by the residents, sometimes made in fleeting encounters at fast-food restaurants. It was a pay first, ask questions later approach. The inspector general's report identifies a number of significant control weaknesses that create a potential for widespread fraud, erroneous payments and wasteful practices." In most disaster-stricken areas, FEMA under Brown has been horrendously tardy in paying out disaster relief funds, but in the politically critical Miami-Dade area, Brown reversed his office's practice and handed out money right and left: according to Bob Hunter, Director of Insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, a top federal flood insurance official in the 1970s and 1980s and a Texas insurance commissioner in the 1990s, "in the vast majority of hurricanes, other than those in Florida in 2004, complaints are rife that FEMA has vastly underpaid hurricane victims. The Frances overpayments are questionable given the timing of the election and Florida's importance as a battleground state."
FEMA consultant Glenn Garcelon wrote a September 2, 2004 memo that read, in part, "The Republican National Convention was winding down, and President Bush had only a slight lead in the polls against Democrat John Kerry. Winning Florida was key to the president's re-election. FEMA should pay careful attention to how it is portrayed by the public." Garcelon added that FEMA should convey "the team effort theme at every opportunity" alongside state and local officials, the insurance and construction industries, and relief agencies such as the Red Cross. Governor Jeb Bush received the memo on September 30, 2004, shortly before a swell of payments made its way to residents in Miami-Dade who did not sustain damage as a result of Hurricane Frances.
In a corollary to the above entry, an investigation into the story behind the FEMA debacle by the Orlando Sun-Sentinel proves that FEMA's incompetent and politically driven response is the rule, not the exception, for that agency. "The federal government's mishandling of Hurricane Katrina is just the latest in a series of missteps by a national disaster response system that for years has been fraught with waste and fraud," the story opens. The paper's editor, Earl Mauker, says his paper called for Michael Brown's resignation a year ago after discovering that, in the wake of Hurricane Frances, FEMa paid out $31 million in disaster relief to residents of Dade County, Florida, who were not affected by the hurricane. The investigation found a plethora of other indefensible payouts in Detroit, Baton Rouge, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, and found that many, many FEMA employees were not only unqualified for their jobs, many have criminal records. The series estimated that between 1999 and 2004, FEMA squandered $400 million in money spent "for storms that never occurred or for issues that were miles away from" a disaster site, Mauker said. Sun-Sentinel investigative journalists actually started out looking to track how homeland security funds were being spent for ports and other sensitive areas. "We started looking on the computer, and saw all this federal money going to all these places, and wanted to know why," Mauker said. "Michael Brown was nothing but defensive" as the newspaper was doing its reporting, Mauker said. "We had to file all kinds of lawsuits." You can read the entire Sun-Sentinel investigative report online, under the headling "FEMA: A Legacy of Waste."
And it's not just Michael Brown, or even just the Washington office. The regional director of FEMA in the Northwest region, John Pennington, has been revealed as a former coffeeshop owner who got the position through the offices of former GOP congresswoman Jennifer Dunn. Pennington, who oversees disaster management for the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska, got his college degree from a then-unaccredited "diploma mill," and has no experience whatsoever in disaster management. Pennington's connections to the Bush organization includes his chairmanship of the Cowlitz County, Washington campaign for Bush's election in 2000.
The acting executive director of the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness within the Department of Homeland Security, Matt Mayer, is another crony appointee. Mayer, who heads the terrorism preparedness strategies for DHS and is the primary contact for state and local officials in the federal bureaucracy, was primarily named to DHS for his long-term ties with the Colorado Republican Party and their efforts to redistrict that state in their favor. A recent evaluation of Mayer's efforts to secure American seaports through DHS was judged a dismal failure by DHS's Inspector General.
Well, something has been done, at any rate: Brown has been relieved of his duties as head of FEMA's response to the Gulf Coast crisis and is returning to Washington. (He will later be fired. See the timeline below.) The Coast Guard's Vice Admiral Thad Allen is taking over from Brown. Brown's superior, DHS chief Michael Chertoff, says that "Other challenges and threats remain around the world," and Brown is needed to prepare for those, Chertoff said. "Michael Brown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate the federal response to this unprecedented challenge," Chertoff added. He refused to address the possibility of Brown being fired as FEMA's head, though insiders predict Brown, who has been making noises about leaving FEMA since November, will either resign or be fired within days. Asked if he was being made a scapegoat, Brown replied, "By the press, yes. By the president, no. I'm anxious to get back to DC to correct all the inaccuracies and lies that are being said." Asked if the move was a demotion, Brown said, "No. No. I'm still the director of FEMA." Few are pleased with the decision to shuffle Brown back to Washington. Republican senator Trent Lott, whose Pascagoula, Miss., home was destroyed in the storm, said after the announcement that he had concluded that FEMA "was overwhelmed, undermanned and not capable of doing its job" under Brown's leadership. "Michael Brown has been acting like a private, instead of a general," Lott said. Democratic lawmakers weren't satisfied with the move, and demanded Brown's ouster from FEMA. "The events of the last ten days have shown that Mr. Brown has repeatedly exercised poor judgment and has failed in his basic responsibilities," said a letter to Bush from Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and senators Dick Durbin, Debbie Stabenow and Charles Schumer. "His continued presence in this critical position endangers the success of the ongoing recovery efforts. ...It is not enough to remove Mr. Brown from the disaster scene." In an e-mail to his family, Brown lays much of the blame on the media for his and his colleagues' inability to respond properly to the crisis.
On September 12, Brown resigned his position as director of FEMA. "It is important that I leave now to avoid further distraction from the ongoing mission of FEMA," Brown said, and added that he wanted to "get the media focused on the good things that are going on" with FEMA. Bush named senior DHS official David Paulison as acting FEMA director; Paulison is best known for sparking the "duct tape" scandal of 2003, when he advised Americans preparing for terrorist attacks to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting. AmericaBlog's John Aravosis observes, "Great. So we've gone from Brownie (aka Drownie) to Duckie. Is it impossible for Bush to appoint anyone competent to head any agency?" Vice President Cheney apparently was a key player in orchestrating Brown's removal from the Gulf Coast rescue operations, though the typically close-mouthed administration isn't saying if Cheney was behind Brown's resignation.
A week after Brown's resignation, former presidential candidate Senator John Kerry blasted Brown, saying Brown was to Hurricane Katrina "what Paul Bremer is to peace in Iraq; what George Tenet is to slam dunk intelligence...what George Bush is to 'Mission Accomplished' and 'Wanted Dead or Alive.' ...The bottom line is simple: The 'we'll do whatever it takes' administration doesn't have what it takes to get the job done." Kerry said that the government's response to the disaster revealed a "broader pattern of incompetence and negligence" in the Bush administration. Kerry also criticized Bush for suspending the wage laws. His former running mate John Edwards said in a separate speech that the hurricane was a sober reminder that widespread poverty exists throughout the nation, and added that such poverty will persist if the poor are concentrated in specific neighborhoods far from jobs. "If the Great Depression brought forth Hoovervilles, these trailer towns may someday be known as Bushvilles," Edwards told an audience at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. Edwards also criticized Bush for suspending the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act that sets wages for workers on federal contracts. Democrats contend the waiver will allow lower pay. "When the only shot many people have is a good job rebuilding New Orleans, the president intervened to suspend prevailing wage laws so his contractor friends can cut wages for a hard day's work," Edwards said.
Kerry said in his speech at Brown University, "The incompetence of Katrina's response is not reserved to a hurricane. There's an enormous gap between Americans' daily expectations and government's daily performance. And the gap is growing between the enduring strength of the American people -- their values, their spirit, their imagination, their ingenuity, and their willingness to serve and sacrifice -- and the shocking weakness of the American government in contending with our country's urgent challenges. On the Gulf Coast during the last two weeks, the depth and breadth of that gap has been exposed for all to see and we have to address it now before it is obscured again by hurricane force spin and deception. Katrina stripped away any image of competence and exposed to all the true heart and nature of this administration. The truth is that for four and a half years, real life choices have been replaced by ideological agenda, substance replaced by spin, governance second place always to politics. Yes, they can run a good campaign -- I can attest to that -- but America needs more than a campaign. If 12 year-old Boy Scouts can be prepared, Americans have a right to expect the same from their 59 year-old President of the United States. ...They didn't listen to the Army Corps of Engineers when they insisted the levees be reinforced. They didn't listen to the countless experts who warned this exact disaster scenario would happen. They didn't listen to years of urgent pleading by Louisianans about the consequences of wetlands erosion in the region, which exposed New Orleans and surrounding parishes to ever-greater wind damage and flooding in a hurricane. They didn't listen when a disaster simulation just last year showed that hundreds of thousands of people would be trapped and have no way to evacuate New Orleans. They didn't listen to those of us who have long argued that our insane dependence on oil as our principal energy source, and our refusal to invest in more efficient engines, left us one big supply disruption away from skyrocketing gas prices that would ravage family pocketbooks, stall our economy, bankrupt airlines, and leave us even more dependent on foreign countries with deep pockets of petroleum. They didn't listen when Katrina approached the Gulf and every newspaper in America warned this could be 'The Big One' that Louisianans had long dreaded. They didn't even abandon their vacations. And the rush now to camouflage their misjudgments and inaction with money doesn't mean they are suddenly listening. It's still politics as usual. The plan they're designing for the Gulf Coast turns the region into a vast laboratory for right wing ideological experiments. They're already talking about private school vouchers, abandonment of environmental regulations, abolition of wage standards, subsidies for big industries -- and believe it or not yet another big round of tax cuts for the wealthiest among us! ...This is the Katrina administration."
An investigation by author and journalist Russ Baker casts strong doubts on the story that Brown was appointed as head of FEMA through his connections with his reported former college roommate Joe Allbaugh. Nearly all of Allbaugh's friends and acquaintances say they had never heard of Michael Brown, never met him, never even seen the two men in each other's presence. Allbaugh's explanation of his choice of Brown leaves them baffled. According to Baker, "the relationship between the two is a decades-long hidden partnership designed to advance both men's business and personal interests. By all appearances, that relationship encompassed Allbaugh's decision to ask Bush to let him run FEMA, and then his decision to turn the place over to Brown so he could profit from their ties."
Brown's performance as the Commissioner of Judges and Stewards of the International Arabian Horse Association (IAHA) is telling. He stepped into the newly created post in 1991, ostensibly to address concerns about the integrity of the horse judging process. But his ten years with the IAHA was spent almost exclusively doing one thing: pursuing what was apparently a politically-motivated investigation of the sport's most successful trainer, a man who had angered powerful people with connections at the top of the Republican Party. The IAHA's head of its legal review committee, Karl Hart, calls Brown's pursuit of trainer David Boggs as an "obsessive vendetta." Boggs was accused of cosmetically altering the appearance of a show horse, a violation of competition rules. Brown ordered Boggs banned from the show circuit for five years, a draconian punishment tantamount to putting the trainer out of business. Brown apparently pursued Boggs at the behest of several of Bogg's competitors, several very rich Arabian horse owners who were also large Republican donors. The list includes the late Bob Magness, a founder of the TCI cable giant; David Murdock, the Dole food company billionaire; and the late Alec Courtelis, a Florida developer. Courtelis had been one of George H.W. Bush's major fundraisers, and the elder Bush was a frequent guest at Courtelis's horse farm during his presidency. At an April 1990 fundraising dinner in Florida, Bush introduced Courtelis with the words, "Here's a man who breeds race horses for the same reason he works so hard for the party: only one place will do for Alec -- first place."
Neither Hart nor most of the other IAHA officials are sure if Boggs was guilty of the charges against him, but since the horse in question has become the preeminent sire of the breed, Hart thinks genetics may have been more of a factor in its near-perfect profile than the putative illegal cosmetic surgery. Bogg's blizzard of lawsuits against Brown and the IAHA drove the organization into near-bankruptcy and forced it to merge with another group. Though no direct evidence supports the contention that Brown was hired at the behest of the big donors, his treatment by IAHA was near-royal: while other staffers had to report to work each day, Brown, on a full salary, was allowed to work from his sprawling, mountain-air home in Lyons, an hour from IAHA's Denver headquarters. His lifestyle was so pleasant and relaxed that some in Lyons assumed him to be semi-retired. James Van Dyke, chef-owner at the local Gateway Cafe, says Brown had leisurely lunches at the restaurant almost daily. "He seemed to have a lot of time on his hands," says Van Dyke.
While Brown relentlessly pursued Boggs for his so-called transgressions, he also refused to look into another, potentially more serious case involving accusations that Murdock's trainer filed false papers on a show horse. It was Murdock himself who brought Brown's career at IAHA to a close. Murdock told Hart that, at Brown's request, he had written Brown a $50,000 check, ostensibly for Brown's legal bills in the Boggs lawsuits. Hart was amazed; the IAHA was already paying all of Brown's legal expenses. Hart confronted Brown at an IAHA meeting, and Brown panicked. Hart recalls that Brown "grabbed me, literally, and pushed me into a closet. He said, 'Is there any way you and I can work this out?'" The answer was no, and Brown was fired. But within months, Brown resurfaced as the general counsel and later the deputy director and chief operating officer of FEMA. Most of Brown's friends and acquaintances were shocked to see Brown in such a high-level government post, Hart was not. Brown had been saying for six months or more that, if Bush was elected, he was going to have a high position in Washington because he was very close to someone who was very active in Bush's campaign," Hart recalls. Brown's patron was FEMA director and Bush donor Joe Allbaugh.
Allbaugh, a close friend and political colleague of George W. Bush, first met Brown in the early 1980s, when both were beginning their professional careers in Oklahoma. Allbaugh's close friend and boating buddy Mike Williams says he has never met Brown, and was surprised by Brown's appointment to FEMA. According to Williams, Allbaugh didn't make a habit of appointing buddies to posts in FEMA. Media reports have said that Allbaugh and Brown were college roommates. This is untrue -- in fact, they did not even attend the same university. Their early lives have no clear connection with one another, but journalist Baker has found the connections between the two. In the early 1980s, Allbaugh, already rising in the ranks of the Oklahoma Republican party, moved next door to Brown's brother-in-law, Bill Oxley. In 1985, Brown and Oxley formed the Campground Development Corporation, and hired Allbaugh as a state lobbyist for their firm. Allbaugh already ran a small company of his own, Great American Resources, and had Oxley's sister as a partner. The secretary and treasurer of that firm, Allbaugh's then-wife Gypsy Hogan, says she had no idea what the business was about and wasn't comfortable with large amounts of unexplained cash flowing in, nor with Allbaugh's request that she sign a series of blank checks. When she began to demand answers, she says, Allbaugh angrily warned her to mind her own business.
Hogan also remembers that, shortly before she asked him for a divorce, Allbaugh claimed to be in the CIA. By 1984, Allbaugh was a powerful figure in Oklahoma Republican politics, and had become the deputy regional coordinator of the Reagan-Bush election campaign. He met George W. Bush, who was working for his father's campaign, in Oklahoma City. Allbaugh, whose company never made any money on paper, enriched himself at the expense of Republican donors like wealthy California widow Mabel McPhail, who, when she died, had had all but $50,000 of her $3 million fortune siphoned off from contributions to Republican causes and dubious business ventures recommended by Allbaugh. In 2001, when Allbaugh was confirmed by the Senate as the head of FEMA, he hid the fact of his company's bankruptcy and his suspect financial dealings from his questioners, including lying about the legal proceedings his company had engendered.
Allbaugh's own personal and business failures did not extend to his career as a Bush fund-raiser; Baker writes, "As George W. Bush's campaign manager, he would preside over a record-breaking fundraising spree engorged on promises to credit issuers that new laws would make it more difficult for ordinary citizens to declare bankruptcy." His business career was fraught with political conflicts of interest and investment fraud. Yet his connection with the Bush family ensured his political future.
Meanwhile, Brown was compiling his own record of failure and suspect political activities. His first job, as an assistant to the city manager of Edmond, Oklahoma (the job that he used to bolster his resume for his FEMA appointment, and one described by co-workers as a mere internship), was strictly political -- his friend and former college professor, Carl Reherman, was Edmond's mayor, and, according to Brown's then-boss, city manager Bill Dashner, Brown was a "mole" for Reherman, appointed to spy on Reherman's rival Dashner. (Reherman denies the allegations.) The biggest bone of contention between the two was a public-works project that became so expensive the town defaulted on its payments to the Army Corps of Engineers, the same highly politicized outfit with which FEMA is so closely associated. Brown did not mention this experience during his own confirmation hearings. Brown then moved on to the Edmond city council and then to a job with the state legislature, where he helped draft legislation that created the Oklahoma Municipal Power Authority, an obscure entity which he would later chair. His entire experience with flood control before becoming deputy head of FEMA was the fact that, because of his political connections, he had a dam in Kay County named for him by the OMPA in 1988. Even this is a lie: the dam is not named for Brown, and the only tribute he ever received from OMPA is a plaque.
In 1992 Brown moved to Enid, Oklahoma, a booming oil town, where he was hired by the law firm of Stephen Jones, who himself was most famous for defending Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. There, according to his other sister-in-law, Brown bungled a wrongful-death suit for a woman whose husband's car was hit by a train when crossing signals failed to work. Jones's firm split after a fist-fight between its partners that left Jones with a black eye, the partners divided the staff among themselves. No one wanted Brown. "When I saw Brown up there at FEMA, I had a premonition of bad things to come," recalls Jones. In later years, Brown was sued for skipping out of shared law offices without paying his share of the rent, a detail he failed to reveal during his own Senate hearings. His sister-in-law also believes that Brown helped Bill Oxley to alter their father's will so that the Browns and Oxleys would inherit his considerable estates, while leaving the other sister and her family destitute. Brown also claims to have done legal work for the Oklahoma Republican party during these years.
In 1994, Allbaugh was called up by George W. Bush. Officially, Allbaugh was hired by Bush's Texas gubernatorial campaign because of his "strong hand at the tiller." Allbaugh claimed to have worked on campaigns in 37 states already, a claim that does not stand up to examination. What he did on the campaign, as he said himself, was operate as an "enforcer," intimidating others with his physical size (6'3" 275 pounds) and sometimes physically threatening those who got out of hand. His biggest asset was not only his size, but his unquestioning loyalty to the Bushes. "There isn't anything more important than protecting him and the first lady," Allbaugh once told the press. "I'm the heavy, in the literal sense of the word." He was joined as "enforcer" by the physically petite but equally die-hard aide, Harriet Miers. Allbaugh kept discipline within the ranks; Miers fended off legal problems and controlled adverse publicity. In 1999, Allbaugh left the governor's office to manage Bush's presidential campaign. He and Miers kept a lid on the potentially explosive story of Bush's lackluster National Guard service record. In 2000, as Baker writes, "With his 'iron triangle' of [Karl] Rove on strategy, [Karen] Hughes on P.R., and Allbaugh as the enforcer (plus an assist from the U.S. Supreme Court), Bush triumphed."
Meanwhile, Brown bounced back from his ignominious firing from the IAHA with a post at an anti-union electrical contractors' association, which won praise from the new president. Through all of Brown's career, his "fairy godmother" has been lawyer Andrew Lester. A prep-school pal of Marvin Bush, Lester time and again steered Brown into new positions. Lester, who represented the Oklahoma Republican Party in a 2002 reapportionment battle, worked for a Bush-family-connected oil services firm when he was younger, has been a close friend of Justice Clarence Thomas and regional director for the secretive Federalist Society; he also remains high on the list for federal judiciary appointments. Lester has repeatedly insisted his support for Brown is merely a factor of friendship, and maintains that Brown was eminently qualified for his posts at FEMA.
In the new administration, Allbaugh wanted the position of chief of staff, but it went to the more experienced Andrew Card. Allbaugh instead was given the directorship of FEMA. For whatever reason he landed the position, a job he was spectacularly ill-equipped for, Allbaugh took the opportunity to make FEMA his own little kingdom. A longtime sinkhole for patronage jobs, FEMA had been transformed into an efficient, dynamic emergency response agency under Bill Clinton and the previous director, James Lee Witt. With Allbaugh at the helm, the agency reverted to its previous form. Out went the raft of experienced disaster management professionals, in came the cronies. The first one in the door: Michael Brown. Holdovers from Witt's term resented Allbaugh's personnel and policy changes, and sometimes actively resisted his edicts. Most of them didn't last long. "In one meeting, Joe made it clear he would have fired everyone if he had his way," recalls former senior official Trey Reid. "If the elevator doors opened [with Allbaugh inside], employees wouldn't get on. They were afraid of him."
Allbaugh's first order of business was to purge the agency of anyone he didn't consider loyal to Bush. He sent FEMA's Inspector General on a witch hunt, ostensibly in search of corruption; the IG came back time and again with a clean report, only to be sent out again. With little understanding of or experience with large-scale disasters and little patience with federal bureaucracies, Allbaugh was happy to go along with the administration's view of FEMA as a bloated entitlement program in need of drastic cutbacks. "His position was that the states ought to take a bigger role," says Reid. Flood mitigation, a formerly important area of concern, was turned over to a former insurance industry magnate who immediately began allowing the agency to pander to insurance companies by low-balling insurance claims and allowing insurance company officials improper access to the agency. Brown was especially favored by Allbaugh. Six months after he joined FEMA, Allbaugh ousted acting deputy director John Magaw, a former director of the Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, whose main area of responsibility was coordinating domestic-terrorism efforts for FEMA, in favor of Brown. Baker writes, "The timing was remarkable. Just a week prior to September 11, 2001, Allbaugh removed one of the most experienced men in government and replaced him with one of the least experienced." Carefully coached by Bush aides, and boasting a resume festooned with padding, exaggeration, and lies, Brown sailed through the Senate confirmation process. During this same time, Allbaugh sat on Dick Cheney's shadowy, industry-cozy energy task force.
But after 9/11, when the newly created Department of Homeland Security engulfed FEMA, Allbaugh departed for the private sector, leaving Brown in charge. Initially, FEMA employees were pleased with the change. Where Allbaugh was forbidding, Brown was gregarious; the troops were ready to give the new boss every opportunity to shine. Instead, Brown soon found himself having to prepare for actual disasters, a task he was spectacularly unable to handle. He lacked the experience, the managerial skills, and the relationship with White House officials to get anything done. With the administration's focus on terrorism, disaster management became a non-issue. The staff was cut to the bone. But Brown's priority of political patronage was always top on his list. When Hurricane Frances hit Florida just months before the November 2004 elections, the Bush campaign, mindful of the debacle of FEMA's response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that had devastated southern Florida and left the elder Bush with political egg on his face, ensured that the PR portion of FEMA's response was on track. Officials in FEMA shirts crawled all over the stricken area, and Brown was on television as often as possible. Under Brown, FEMA doled out tens of millions of dollars in aid funds to the Miami-Dade County area, which was barely touched by Frances, but contained thousands of key swing votes for Bush. (In contrast, less politically sensitive areas that suffered heavy damages got short shrift.)
By August 2005, Brown was readying himself to follow in Allbaugh's footsteps by leaving FEMA for the private sector, and planning to leave FEMA in the incapable hands of his deputy, PR specialist Patrick Rhode. (It was Rhode who, several days into the Katrina disaster, would call FEMA's performance "one of the most efficient and effective responses in the country's history.") But then Katrina hit, and Brown's plans changed dramatically.
Allbaugh himself was feasting at the corporate trough. He formed the Allbaugh Company with his wife Diane, a former Republican lobbyist with strong ties to Bush administration officials and especially with former RNC chairman Haley Barbour, who, as governor of Mississippi when Katrina hit, made sure to blame everyone except the federal government for the calamitous disaster response. Allbaugh helped a company whom he lobbied for, Shaw Group, land lucrative no-bid rebuilding contracts in the wake of Katrina. AshBritt is another company represented by Allbaugh who landed fat government contracts in the devastated Gulf Coast; AshBritt follows a typical business model of banking large portions of the federal contract dollars it receives, and subcontracting the actual work out to smaller companies to which it pays pennies. Allbaugh continues his cozy relationship with the Bush administration and with Dick Cheney in particular: the Allbaughs bought the Cheneys' luxury townhouse in McLean, Virginia, and one of Allbaugh's biggest clients is Cheney's old firm, Halliburton. After the onset of the administration's focus on terrorism, Allbaugh founded a new firm, New Bridge Strategies, for the single purpose of landing homeland security contracts. With his contacts in the White House and his representation of large, Pentagon-connected defense firms, his businesses have prospered -- largely at taxpayer expense.
Apparently the problem is not just with Brown, or even with FEMA. The entire structure of the Department of Homeland Security, under the leadership, or lack thereof, of former deputy attorney general Michael Chertoff, is coming under question. The entire structure of DHS was concocted by Bush chief of staff Andrew Card in secret. "I knew that if word leaked out, the bureaucracies would defend themselves," he said shortly after the department's inception in June 2002. Card gave Bush several options as how to configure the new department just days before its official creation; one option the president picked was to integrate FEMA into the new department. He chose not to integrate the National Guard under the DHS umbrella.
On September 3, the Daily News wrote, "As for Chertoff, if this is the best his department can do, the homeland is not very secure at all. It is absolutely outrageous that the United States of America could not send help to tens of thousands of forlorn, frightened, sick and hungry human beings at least 24 hours before it did, arguably longer than that. Who is specifically at fault for what is nothing less than a national scandal.... It will never be known exactly what a day could have meant to so many unfortunates whose lives came to an end in those hopelessly tortured hours -- on scorching roadsides, for lack of a swallow of water, in sweltering hospital bads, for lack of insulin. But what is already more than clear is that the nation's disaster-preparedness mechanisms do not appear to be in the hands of officials who know how to run them." Two weeks later, the Democratic National Committee demanded the release of Chertoff's schedule during the days surrounding the Katrina strike, to determine why he was virtually unavailable during that critical period.
Liberal columnist Joe Conason writes of Chertoff, "Reporting by Knight-Ridder News Service shows that Mr. Chertoff froze when he ought to have mobilized government during the crucial hours leading up to the disaster. Among the reasons for his failure is that he, too, lacked qualifications for his job. He is a highly capable lawyer, which may have caused him to dither over legalistic questions of state and federal authority, but he has few credentials to run an enormous and critically important bureaucracy. From the perspective of the Bush White House, the outstanding item on Mr. Chertoff's resume is his partisan hatchet work on the Senate Whitewater Committee."
The rather partisan Web site Democratic Underground has compiled a list of errors and incompetence performed by FEMA during the early days of the crisis. The site itself has individual links sourcing each instance.
The Wall Street Journal has found that on August 31, FEMA only requested 455 buses and 300 ambulances to evacuate the over 20,000 New Orleans residents then taking shelter at the Superdome, far fewer than was necessary for such a task, and 18 hours later canceled the request, because, as one FEMA employee put it, "the DOT doesn't do ambulances." By the evening of September 3, the request had finally swollen to 1355 buses. Still, the buses only trickled in a few at a time. A frustrated Department of Health worker complained that every e-mail he and his colleagues sent to FEMA was returned unread.
Before Katrina even hit, the city of Chicago up a list of resources it was willing to make available for relief efforts in areas that might be hit by the storm. Chicago told the Federal Emergency Management Agency that in the event of disaster, it could spare more than 100 Chicago police officers, 36 Fire Department personnel, eight emergency medical experts, more than 130 staff from Chicago's Department of Public Health, 140 staff from the Department of Streets and Sanitation, dozens of trucks and two boats. These teams, mayor Richard Daley told federal officials, could work in affected areas independently, bringing their own food, water and other supplies with them. But FEMA apparently wasn't interested. Despite the host of resources Chicago offered, and despite the televised lack of resources in New Orleans, as of late last week, FEMA had requested only one thing from Chicago -- a single tanker truck. "I was shocked," Daley said later. "We are ready to provide considerably more help than they have requested. We are just waiting for a call." Citing security concerns, DHS barred the American Red Cross from entering New Orleans with food. Five hundred Floridian airboaters were ready to rescue people stranded in inundated homes, but FEMA turned them down. Twenty sheriff's deputies from Loudoun County, Virginia, suffered a similar fate. And as documented elsewhere on this page, Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish, said on Meet the Press that FEMA declined to let him accept three tanker trucks of water donated by Wal-Mart, as well as 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel stored in a Coast Guard vessel docked in his district.
During the first week of the calamity, FEMA confiscated urgently needed supplies bound for the beleagured staff and patients of the flooded Methodist Hospital in eastern New Orleans. A dozen patients died in the hospital before they were finally evacuated on Friday, September 2; it is unknown how many of those patients would have survived had FEMA not confiscated the emergency supplies they so desperately needed. Doctors who had volunteered their services were handed mops by federal officials concerned about liability issues. One doctor, relegated to mopping floors instead of helping victims at the New Orleans airport, said, "They told us that, you know, you could help us by mopping the floor." They mopped while people around them died. "I started crying," he recalled. "We felt like we could help, and were not allowed to do anything."
Police from other states were refused entry to stricken areas while federal officials argued over who was in charge. Warehouses burned to the ground while firefighters sat in classes on sexual harassment and community relations. "On the news every night you hear 'How come everybody forgot us?'" Pennsylvania firefighter Joseph Manning told reporters. "We didn't forget. We're stuck in Atlanta drinking beer." Tractor trailers carrying water were halted by FEMA officials outside Alexandria, Louisiana, and forced to sit on the side of the road because all of their paperwork was not in order. "FEMA would not let the trucks unload," said William Vines, former mayor of Fort Smith, Arkansas. "The drivers were stuck for several days on the side of the road" because, he said, they did not have a "tasker number. What in the world is a tasker number? I have no idea. It's just paperwork and it's ridiculous."
As of September 16, over 100 trucks laden with water and ice still sat unused, while FEMA decided what, if anything, to do with them and their cargoes. Some of the trucks wound up in a Cumberland, Maryland staging area belonging to FEMA, where they sat unloaded and racking up charges, including salaries of as much as $900 a day for drivers. Driver Bill Lutz said he and the other drivers felt lost. "I asked this morning, 'Are we going to follow the hurricanes until the end of the season?' I sound angry, and I am, but I hate inefficiency." Lutz himself left Wisconsin with a load of ice for the victims, but like his fellow drivers, was diverted by FEMA before being allowed to unload his desperately needed cargo in a stricken area. Instead, Lutz and the others were sent to Columbia, South Carolina before being sent to Cumberland. Other drivers and their loads were being sent to Allentown, Pennsylvania; Boise, Idaho; Portland, Maine; Gloucester, Massachusetts; Joplin, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; Fremont, Nebraska; and Upper Macungie Township, Pennsylvania, among others. None of the loads were being used to help victims; indeed, one load of ice wound up in Tucson, Arizona, being used for the convenience of the local zoo's polar bears.
Leo Bosner, a 26-year FEMA employee and union boss, has come forward to tell his story of insouciant and incompetent supervisors, political appointees who were unable to handle the challenge of responding to the hurricane and who were far more concerned about image and political repercussions than they were about saving lives. Bosner knew there would be a problem before the hurricane even hit. "We told these fellows [senior FEMA officials] that there was a killer hurricane heading right toward New Orleans," Bosner said. "We had done our job, but they didn't do theirs." Three days before Katrina made landfall, Bosner sent a briefing to Michael Brown outlining his concerns, focusing on the possible calamity poised to befall New Orleans. Brown barely responded. Bosner has been saying for over a year that Brown is unfit for the position. "I have nothing personal against Mike Brown," he said. "I feel badly about the guy. But he took a job he was never trained for. The man was a lawyer." Bosner wrote a blistering memo in 1992 that raised red flags about FEMA and helped lead to reform during the Clinton administration. "FEMA's biggest problem is that too few people in the agency are trained to help in emergencies," he wrote. "We have good soldiers but crummy generals." For the rest of the 1990s, FEMA improved, Bosner said. But since 2001 the agency has again become demoralized and experienced disaster experts have left. "At FEMA...we have actually slid backwards."
Add to the "stupid" files we're all keeping on FEMA: On September 15, FEMA officials in Washington ordered officials and employees in its Preparedness Division to stop working on hurricane relief efforts and begin working on moving their offices to Virginia. "They're no longer focused on the gigantic Katrina job and are putting their files into boxes instead," said one outraged FEMA insider. "This is simply incredible considering that the entire staff has been an integral part of the response effort." Taking staff off hurricane duty is "disruptive when we need every single soul here to work on Katrina," the source said. "Right now is the wrong time to disrupt any part of FEMA's operation," added Representative Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the Democrats' homeland security task force. "I'd like to know who's going to take responsibility for this move."
And in one of the most horrific examples of FEMA's bureaucratic incompetence, a doctor reports that he was ordered by FEMA officials to stop treating hurricane victims because he wasn't registered with the agency. Dr. Mark Perlmutter, an orthopedic surgeon who left his practice in Pennsylvania to volunteer to help in New Orleans, said, "I begged him [the FEMA representative, a Coast Guard official] to let me continue. People were dying, and I was the only doctor on the tarmac [at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport] where scores of nonresponsive patients lay on stretchers. Two patients died in front of me. I showed him my medical credentials. I had tried to get through to FEMA for 12 hours the day before and finally gave up. I asked him to let me stay until I was replaced by another doctor, but he refused. He said he was afraid of being sued. I informed him about the Good Samaritan laws and asked him if he was willing to let people die so the government wouldn't be sued, but he would not back down. I had to leave." FEMA confirmed Perlmutter's story by acknowledging that the agency does not use voluntary physicians. "We have a cadre of physicians of our own," FEMA spokesman Kim Pease said. "They are the National Disaster Medical Team. ...The voluntary doctor was not a credentialed FEMA physician and, thus, was subject to law enforcement rules in a disaster area."
Perlmutter's fellow doctor, Clark Gerhart, said the scene they confronted at the airport was one of "hundreds of people lying on the ground, many soaked in their own urine and feces, some coding [dying] before our eyes." FEMA workers initially seemed glad for help and asked Gerhart to work inside the terminal and Perlmutter to work out on the tarmac. They were told only a single obstetrician had been on call at the site for the past 24 hours. Then, the Coast Guard official informed the group that he could not credential them or guarantee tort coverage and that they should return to Baton Rouge. "That shocked me, that those would be his concerns in a time of emergency," Gerhart said. Transported back to Baton Rouge, Perlmutter's frustrated group went to state health officials who finally got them certified -- a simple process that took only a few seconds. "I found numerous other doctors in Baton Rouge waiting to be assigned and others who were sent away, and there was no shortage of need," he said. Perlmutter added, "I have been going to Ecuador and Mexico [on medical missions] for 14 years. I was at ground zero. I've seen hundreds of people die. This was different because we knew the hurricane was coming. FEMA showed up late and then rejected help for the sake of organization. They put form before function, and people died."
What of the disgraced Brown? Obviously he has no intention of going quietly -- or of assuming any responsibility of his own. On Friday, September 16, he launched a counterattack against charges of incompetence and lackadaisicalness, blaming -- who else? -- the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans. He told the New York Times he frantically called Michael Chertoff and the White House in the hours after Katrina hit, telling them Blanco and her staff were disorganized and the situation was "out of control." He told Chertoff and others, "I am having a horrible time. I can't get a unified command established." Brown told the Times that he had such difficulty dealing with Blanco that he communicated with her husband instead. "I truly believed the White House was not at fault here," he said. On August 30, the same day Chertoff wrote his memo, Brown said he asked the White House to take over the response from FEMA and state officials. All of this "information" Brown is now alleging has not been heard before from anyone. To call it "suspect" is to give it too much credit. In fact, according to the New York Times, "A senior administration official said Wednesday night that White House officials recalled the conversations with Mr. Brown but did not believe they had the urgency or desperation he described in the interview." Blanco said in indirect response to Brown's allegations that FEMA had responded to the crisis with a "lack of urgency and lack of respect."
Louisiana senator David Vitter, a Republican, said he initially was impressed by how quickly federal authorities mobilized before the storm. But after it hit, nothing happened for days. "There was absolutely no execution," Vitter told CNN. "I was very happy with how quickly the president had signed his first emergency order," he said. "The FEMA director was on the ground before the storm. FEMA teams were on the ground. But then Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, absolutely no execution. I don't know what they were doing." Vitter added, "This wasn't a failure of one person, although it was that also. It was a failure of the whole bureaucracy, and the solution to that isn't getting a new head bureaucrat or a new type of head bureaucrat. I think the whole bureaucratic FEMA model is what has to be probably discarded." Many Republicans are equally disgusted with Brown's responses. "I'm happy you left," says Republican congressman Christopher Shays. "That kind of look in the lights like a deer tells me you weren't capable of doing that job." "so I guess you want me to be the superhero, to step in there and take everyone out of New Orleans," Brown retorts, to which Shays says simply, "What I wanted you to do is do your job and coordinate." Republican representative Kay Granger tells Brown: "I don't know how you can sleep at night. You lost the battle." Another congressional Democrat, Gene Taylor, adds, "The disconnect was, people thought there was some federal expertise out there. There wasn't. Not from you."
Three weeks after the disaster, FEMA is still floundering in its response, swathing relief efforts in red tape and directly interfering with efforts by other agencies. The federal hotline touted by Bush in his recent address is undermanned and overloaded, leaving thousands of callers unable to talk to anyone. Federal officials refuse to give permission to local officials to perform the fundamental tasks needed to get their towns up and running. Federal help centers, the nerve centers of the federal disaster relief response, still don't exist in many stricken areas. Bush's stated goal of getting 100,000 refugees out of shelters and into housing by October 15 is unlikely to be met (he has already pushed back his deadline from October 1). The New York Times, after investigating the response, calls the federal system "fragmented and dysfunctional."
Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen, who replaced the Bush crony Michael Brown as the leader of the federal response, says that bureaucratic red tape is tying his hands and preventing housing and debris cleanup efforts. James McGehee, the mayor of the small Louisiana city of Bogalusa, could barely contain his rage in an interview on Thursday: "Today is 18 days past the storm, and FEMA has not even put a location for people who are displaced," he said. "They are walking around the damn streets. The system's broke." The president of St. Tammany Parish, Kevin Davis, said that he can't even get permission from FEMA to begin repairs to his area's drainage system; any heavy rainfall, said Davis, and his parish will flood again. "If it rains, I've got real problems," Davis said. "I just need someone to tell me make the public bids and I could rebuild our parish in no time." In Tangipahoa Parish, parish president Gordon Burgess said he called FEMA officials daily to ask when they would arrive to assist residents with housing. Burgess said the federal workers say, "'I'll get to you next week,' and then the next week and then you'd never hear from them again." Truck drivers carrying tens of thousands of tons of ice and driving water have been sent on a cross-country tour, from city to city, only then to be told to wait for up to a week in a parking lot in Memphis, with their engines, as well as their tabs as drivers running. "It is a sad experience," said Frank Link, who was sent from to Missouri, then to Mississippi, then to Alabama and then to Tennessee -- all with the same load of 41,580 pounds of ice that he had loaded in Chicago. "I went down there to help. All I did was get the runaround from FEMA."
And in the "irony of ironies" category, ex-FEMA director Michael Brown has announced that he has started up his own disaster relief consulting firm. "If I can help people focus on preparedness, how to be better prepared in their homes and better prepared in their businesses -- because that goes straight to the bottom line -- then I hope I can help the country in some way," he says. The company, Michael D. Brown LLC, will run from Boulder, Colorado. "I'm doing a lot of good work with some great clients," he says. "My wife, children and my grandchild still love me. My parents are still proud of me."