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Why did FEMA fail after Katrina?
Twisted priorities in Washington

October 7, 2005 | Pages 6 and 7

EVER SINCE Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, Bush administration officials have tried to deflect attention from their criminal lack of response by complaining that critics are playing the "blame game." But the finger-pointing reached a new low with congressional testimony from one of their own--the man George W. Bush calls "Brownie."

Answering questions before a special House panel that Democrats largely boycotted as a toothless whitewash, former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael Brown still managed to anger even the White House's most devoted servants in Congress. He heaped the blame on everyone but himself--the Pentagon, the Louisiana state government, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

But beneath Brown's self-serving rhetoric lies a wider point--FEMA has had less and less to do with protecting people from natural disaster, particularly since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

BRUCE COOLEY, who worked for FEMA's Response and Recovery directorate for seven years until 2003, looks at what's wrong with the federal government's main agency for dealing with disasters.

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MICHAEL BROWN made it very clear that the poor shouldn't expect anything from FEMA or the Bush administration.

"[W]hile my heart goes out to people on fixed incomes, it is primarily a state and local responsibility," Brown told members of Congress during testimony. "And in my opinion, it's the responsibility of faith-based organizations, of churches and charities and others to help those people."

Brown's dismissal of official responsibility for the lives and welfare of "people on fixed incomes" is a perfect picture of one side of the deadly failure of the Bush administration after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. In an era of escalating attacks on living standards, of privatized schools and security forces, saving the lives of "people on fixed incomes" is a pretty low priority.

But maybe "Brownie" should get some points for his humility in responding to the suggestion that for four years, he knowingly oversaw "the demise of that agency." "That's why perhaps I'm not as brave as some people say I am," Brown said, "because I probably should have just resigned my post earlier and gone public with some of these things."

Hundreds of thousands of people in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, whose lives were shattered by Hurricane Katrina, would surely agree.

This is the other side of the catastrophe--that it was predicted, and its impact was avoidable. Planners have seen Katrina coming for years. It was well known how lethal a severe hurricane could be on the Gulf Coast--and how likely it was to happen.

By Friday, August 26, after Katrina crossed south Florida into the Gulf of Mexico stronger than it had been before "landfall," the foreseen catastrophe was a real possibility. When the models caught up with the storm's strength later that day, it was obvious that huge numbers of people had to get out of the way. It didn't happen.

Disasters are prepared in advance. In New Orleans and the rest of inland Louisiana and southern Mississippi, the Katrina catastrophe was prepared by weak and sunken levies; lost wetlands; vulnerable housing; exposed infrastructure from highways to elderly homes; overstressed hospitals--and a lack of planning.

Nothing was done about the hazards of New Orleans, like the hazards in every community in the U.S., because the Bush administration has priorities other than saving lives. As even the mainstream media have acknowledged, the real disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi was prepared by racism, poverty and criminal neglect.

Since the Bush administration arrived in Washington in 2001, resources have steadily flowed away from what FEMA staffers call "mitigation"--measures that can be taken in advance to save lives in the event of storms like Katrina. Funds have been siphoned off from natural disaster "preparedness"--with a real evacuation plan for New Orleans probably one casualty.

Under its new director in 2001, Joe Allbaugh--a longtime Bush political crony and associate of Karl Rove--the first "disaster" watched closely by FEMA was the California energy crisis. Daily reports were issued about supply and demand in California's energy market, and the possibility of a catastrophic failure of the energy grid, which would incapacitate everything from hospitals to emergency responders.

FEMA didn't have any plans about how to respond to that kind of failure. While California residents were being blackmailed by Bush-friendly companies like Enron, FEMA seemed to be monitoring the situation to see how well it was going.

Just as September 11 gave the Bush administration the opportunity to make new wars abroad, it also produced an aggressive war at home. The USA PATRIOT Act is one result. The absorption of FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003 is another.

At FEMA, one of the most demoralized workforces in the federal government has watched as the duties of homeland security take the place of real response planning and "hazard mitigation." Now, the focus is on border enforcement, port security, domestic intelligence, and crowd control and security.

There was no effective federal response to Katrina because Homeland Security is busy fighting the domestic "war on terror."

But even under Democrat Bill Clinton during the 1990s, terrorism was becoming a main focus of "disaster" planning. The sarin gas attack in Tokyo in 1995 and the first World Trade Center bombings in 1993 became the models of the hazards faced in the post-Cold War world. Continuity of government operations, plus law enforcement and forensics, became the priorities.

The Seattle protests in 1999 against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the anti-corporate globalization movement that rocked the U.S. up until 9/11 further shifted the focus to law enforcement, security and "consequence management." FEMA took the lead in coordinating response planning for everything from the Olympic Games to trade summits.

Now, in the wake of Katrina, the Bush administration is pushing for greater military involvement in future responses. A proposed new "national rescue plan" will mean that the military will be the first on the ground and the ones in charge.

We know what that will look like from New Orleans after the flooding: Combat operations against what some officials will openly call an "insurgency," while people struggle to survive.

If Bush has his way, the next "unforeseen" catastrophic disaster will feature the Pentagon at home, "protecting" things. Whether it's a major earthquake in California or at the New Madrid fault in Missouri, or a tsunami radiating out from the Kolchak Pennisula of Russia, we're likely to see a military-led response that will make the National Guard used during the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion look like the Cub Scouts. "Recovery" will become more and more the enforcement of law and order.

But the price for the militarization of disaster response will be seen even in more commonplace ways, week in and week out: failed warnings about or preparation for tornadoes or flash floods; weakened public health systems; decayed transportation; deteriorating housing; collapsing schools; environmental degradation. All of these very real disasters are already underway.

We can't trust the people at the top of this system to make our world safer. Only we can do that, by changing the priorities of the system from top to bottom.

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