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Special Reports Last Updated: Dec 31st, 2005 - 13:52:10

The People versus FEMA
By Sara S. DeHart, Ph.D.
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Sep 18, 2005, 15:04

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In the aftermath of natural disaster Americans are urged give generously to help victims of tragedy. These monies are above and beyond the taxes paid by our citizens that the Bush administration refers to as federal aid. We've been assured that the federal protection umbrella, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are mobilized and ready to move into any disaster area within hours. Following the debacle of mismanagement and systems failure just witnessed in Louisiana and New Orleans, it is time to look beyond opening our checkbooks to consider what we are paying for, both through charitable organizations and the federal government in taxes.

Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans is a tragedy of colossal proportions for all Americans. Words are insufficient to portray what went wrong, but clearly this is the time to evaluate, to scrutinize, to peek under the cover of the structure of FEMA that after the 9/11 disaster was rolled into a newly created Hydra-headed bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). We may never get another chance and the demand must come from the people because on September 14, exactly 20 days after Governor Blanco declared a State of Emergency in Louisiana and requested help from the federal government, the Senate Republican majority voted down a measure calling for an independent commission to investigate what went wrong with federal, state and local governments' response to Hurricane Katrina. [1].

President Bush states that he plans to investigate and oversee what “went wrong” with the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. He must not be permitted to do this any more than he should have been allowed to stop every effort to have an independent investigation of the 911 disaster. An independent counsel and commission with full grand jury/subpoena authority are needed. More importantly, if one can still be found in this country; the independent counsel must be removed from both political and corporate connections. We may have to go to British MP George Galloway to find such a person but someone must expose the lickspittles of this administration and remove the curtain covering the Wizard of Oz.

With our current politicized judicial system there are few independent counsels left with the stature of Lawrence Walsh who exposed the Reagan-Bush administration's Iran-Contra operatives. Walsh's efforts came to naught when then President George H. W. Bush pardoned six of the key figures and the Democratic-controlled Congress allowed him to get away with it. Several Iran-Contra operatives have returned to the current administration in prominent policy-making positions of power. [2]

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

FEMA was created by a series of executive orders that were issued by the president. It was conceived and constructed by Executive Order 12148 during the Carter administration to respond to nuclear attack. The reasoning behind its formation was for a system to be in place to coordinate governmental functions in the event that Washington, DC, was attacked. FEMA, with no congressional oversight, has grown into a governmental leviathan akin to a monstrous sea creature. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) refers to FEMA as a “bureaucratic black hole that spends money without the slightest accountability” [3]

Following FEMA's inadequate response to Hurricane Andrew that hit Florida in 1992, Congress examined the agency and reported that only a small proportion (about 12 percent) of its budget was actually going for disaster recovery and relief. Calls by Congress to make the agency responsive to emergency-disaster regional needs were addressed by the Clinton administration.

FEMA took on both accountability and visibility and recovered from its former stigma of an agency for political paybacks. It became a model agency that attracted professionals in disaster recovery such as Director James Lee Witt. By contrast, Bush's appointee, Joe Albaugh, a Texas political operative was at the helm on September 11, 2001 when the next major disaster struck the United States. [4]

Intense criticism of FEMA emerged following its response to the 9-11 disaster. In the aftermath restructuring, FEMA lost cabinet status and was folded into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The primary mandate for FEMA became protection from terrorist attack rather than protection and relief for citizens following natural disasters.

According to medical rescue team reports, Cipro to treat Anthrax and supplies designed for use against chemical attack were in the first shipment from FEMA to arrive at the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, field hospital because this response was mandated by the new standardized emergency protocol. [5]

The media portray FEMA as a bungling and inept emergency management agency and they may be partially correct given its current structure and leadership. But not withstanding the agency's poor response to Katrina, the umbrella agency Department of Homeland Security needs special scrutiny before this tragedy is swept under the rug. In fact, the federal official with the power to mobilize a massive federal response to Katrina was Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. According to the National Response Plan, the federal government's blueprint for how agencies will handle major national disasters or terrorist incidents, the secretary of DHS was charged with that responsibility by President Bush in 2003. [6]

Homeland Security Fails Tests Along the Way and Bombs with Katrina

The media ridiculed Homeland Security's first director, Tom Ridge, for spending a year in planning the system designed to protect our nation and then coming up with color coding for disaster alerts, along with timely advice to prepare our homes with plastic sheets and duct tape in the event of biochemical or biological attacks. Crayolas are still used to alert the people that trouble is afoot in our land, but no amount of prose, color-coding or duct tape can shut off the horror we've just witnessed in New Orleans with FEMA directly obstructing relief efforts by groups and individuals who were trying to rescue people and save lives.

Tom Ridge got out just in time. Michael Brown was not so lucky. He has now resigned from FEMA with enough bad publicity that he may find the job market rather tight. His replacement, David Paulison, is the person responsible for the duct tape and plastic solution to biological, chemical or radiological attacks issued by DHS in 2003. President Bush has promised him the full support of the federal government as he comes up to speed. I await Jon Stewart's commentary on this appointment.

So far there has been little scrutiny of Michael Chertoff, the new security czar who holds dual citizenship (Israel and the United States). Most of the media directed their attention and blame on Michael Brown, who as FEMA's director was clearly ill prepared to handle the job. Brown believes he has been scapegoated by the media and, in part, I agree. This debacle is much larger than merely placing political appointees in positions for which they are unqualified.

The Bush administration's response to 9-11 (instill fear--declare a war on terror--create a bigger and more cumbersome leviathan) has left us as a nation bloated and weakened in hope. We will not survive this assault unless a majority of citizens demand that their elected representative examine and change the structure that paralyzed New Orleans and much of Louisiana in September 2005. Congress must be coerced to do their job of oversight and the Senate forced to do its job by mandating an independent commission to investigate how and why the system failed. This will not happen unless we ask the right questions and demand answers. We lose the big picture if we look at job performance and credentials of individuals without understanding the structure in which these people have been placed.

The response of Congress to date has been to pour $52 billion into FEMA. Congressman Ron Paul reported that the original $10 billion authorized by Congress, which the Republican leadership would not permit any debate on, was spent in a matter of days. [3]

Remember the first rule of science and organizations: Structure determines function. FEMA has been allowed to function as a political burrow for various administrations to conduct business away from scrutiny or oversight. Its major purpose has not been fulfilled if that function is to assist areas and persons afflicted by monstrous disasters.

Most of us, like the mayor of New Orleans and governor of Louisiana, expected that when they declared a state disaster emergency Friday, August 26, and called for help it would be forthcoming. This was a false assumption that many of us made as we waited for help to arrive to aid the disaster area. Each day Americans and the world faced a new visual horror.

For those who watched the Tim Russert program on September 4, a full 10 days into the disaster, in which Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish emotionally described FEMA officials blocking help from arriving and then recounting the death by drowning of his associate's mother in a nursing home, we recoiled from this reality. Many of us wept along with Broussard. This happened in our country, in this century under the watch of George Bush.

Changing of the Guard is Mere Window Dressing

Changing personnel is not the answer to FEMA's problem. The American people need to demand that the structure of FEMA and Homeland Security be carefully examined by an independent commission that is willing to go back to the drawing board and demand that the structure fit the needs of the United States in the 21st Century.

The old U.S. Post Office model of political cronyism will destroy us as surely as it destroyed New Orleans. President Bush has used the FEMA mechanism to funnel what is known in political circles as “walking around money.” Large sums of “hurricane relief” money were dispersed in Florida prior to the November 2004 election allegedly to buy votes in a state that was critical for Bush to carry. [7] This is “walking around money” in its most blatant form.

One need only examine each of the 10 regional FEMA districts for an education on its structure, function and personnel. [8] If we examine only two, Regions VI and X, the problems are evident for disasters waiting to happen or as in the case of Region VI, the disaster has already occurred. FEMA Region VI includes Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas.

Region VI Acting Director Gary Jones' official resumé lists 41 years of government experience. He holds a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Arkansas and a master's degree from Tulane University. (The years those degrees were awarded are not available.) He has served as acting director on four other separate occasions. Is this political cronyism? Only an independent investigation could determine why the leadership in Region VI failed so miserably in Louisiana and New Orleans.

The case for political cronyism is abundantly clear in Region X an area responsible for Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska. John Pennington was appointed as FEMA regional director in December 2001. He was promoted by former Republican Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn who chaired the 2000 Washington State Committee to Elect Bush president. Dunn called Pennington “a natural” after reviewing his work on that political committee. Mr. Pennington holds a BS degree from California Coast University, a correspondence school, which at the time that Pennington obtained his degree was nonaccredited.

With our present framework in governmental practice, Dr. Lawrence Peter's Principle has played itself out from the level of the president downward. An old Yiddish proverb states that the fish stinks from the head. Not to put too fine a point on the state of the union, but there is a smell emitting from New Orleans that should cause Americans to either purchase gas masks or decide to clean up the garbage in DC and beyond.

Homeland Security and FEMA have failed a massive systems test, and in the language of No child left behind, failure will no longer be tolerated. To members of the House and Senate, the message is clear. Fix the structure or you will lose your jobs! We cannot wait for the next disaster to find out that the U.S. Cavalry is a no-show charade directed by incompetents placed into a Hydra-headed bureaucracy by a president addicted to cronyism. It is a false premise to believe that the United States can be fully protected from either natural or manmade disasters. But can we at least have an adequate response to disaster to minimize damage?

[1] Jordan, Lara Jakes (September 14, 2005) Senate Kills Bid for Katrina Commission. Associated Press

[2] Kornbluh, Peter (May 7, 2001). Bush's Contra Buddies.

[3 ] Ron Paul (September 12, 2005). Ron Paul's Texas Straight Talk.

[4] Benjamin, Mark (September 17, 2005). The Crony who prospered.

[5] Burger, Julian & Campbell, Duncan, (September 3, 2005). Why did help take so long to arrive? The Guardian UK.

[6] Landry, J.S., Young, A. & McCaffrey, S. (September 13, 2005). Chertoff delayed federal response memo shows. Knight Ridder.

[7] O'Matz, Megan & Kestin, Sally (March 23, 2005) State Records show Bush re-election concerns played part in FEMA Aid. Sun


Sara S. DeHart, MSN, Ph.D., Associate Professor Emeritus, University of Minnesota is a freelance writer and democracy activist. She lives in the Seattle, Washington, area of the United States.

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