Morning Report 9/28/05
Barney Fife on Capitol Hill

Brown insists that he nipped that hurricane — nipped it in the bud

Harkavy/White House

The House Select Committee on Hurricane Katrina dumped a whole bucket of tar on toxic clown Mike Brown yesterday, but the entertaining performance was still a whitewash.

Brown is an easy punching bag to hit — hell, he's a speed bag.

The guy was demoted on the spot and sent back to D.C., and then, under the kind of pressure that turns coal into diamonds, he "resigned." But the schmuck is still on the federal payroll as a "consultant" to FEMA, getting $148,000 to help the agency "review" its response to Katrina, as he put it.

The panel members excoriated the guy, who was both offensive and defensive in return. Brown swears he tried to nip that storm in the bud. Uh-huh.

Look at the transcript of the six-hour session, and you'll see how various House Republicans did themselves proud for next year's election campaign by beating this dead horse judge.

But the sound bites and fury signified nothing. The Bush regime's penchant for decentralizing and privatizing vital federal functions is another matter. That's been a disaster waiting to happen. And then the disaster happened.

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank writes this morning:

    House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) ordered a Democratic boycott of the hearing, calling it a "sham" and a "photo opportunity." But, as defrocked FEMA director Michael D. Brown can attest, Pelosi's concerns about a whitewash proved unjustified.

Yes, Brown came across as smugly sanctimonious — "I pray for these people every night" — and defiantly ignorant — asked for figures, he reckoned that FEMA spent "a boatload of money."

Sure, everybody at the hearing slathered tar on Brown. And Milbank poked fun at Bush's absurd September 2 endorsement of his former campaign hack by saying the committee "did a heck of a job on Brownie."

But Pelosi was right: A full hearing would delve deeper into the dismantling of FEMA that has gone on since Bush appointed his campaign manager Joe Allbaugh to head the agency in 2001. Now, of course, Allbaugh is a consultant for Halliburton and others and, as I noted more than a year ago, he runs a consulting company called Diligence.

You can take Mardi Gras hats worn by Louisiana National Guard soldiers in Iraq and stick them on Brown and George W. Bush, but when it comes down to it, you just can't make this shit up. But sometimes you accidentally do: Along with many others, I've incorrectly described Brown and Allbaugh as college roommates. They weren't. They are, however, longtime pals, and Brown was the first person Allbaugh hired at FEMA.

Back to current bidness: As I wrote more than a week ago, Jon Elliston covered the topic of FEMA's dismantling in a story last year, during the election campaign. In "Disaster in the Making," Elliston observed that the Bush regime was religiously responding to Hurricane Charley and other storms that were battering Florida and added:

    FEMA's relatively quick response to the hurricanes has thus far won mostly high marks from Florida officials, who remember well a time when the disaster agency seemed the last party to show up after catastrophes. In addition, President Bush has paid multiple visits to assure victims they will get whatever help is needed, and he promptly secured more than $2 billion from Congress to fund Florida's recovery. & As storms continue to batter the Panhandle, no one would call Florida lucky. But with elections just around the corner, the hurricanes could scarcely have hit at a better time or place for obtaining federal disaster assistance.

    "They're doing a good job," one former FEMA executive says of the Bush administration's response efforts. "And the reason why they're doing that job is because it's so close to the election, and they can't fuck it up, otherwise they lose Florida — and if they lose Florida, they might lose the election."

    Such political considerations may indeed make this round of recoveries go better than most. But long before this hurricane season, some emergency managers inside and outside of government started sounding an alarm that still rings loudly. Bush administration policy changes and budget cuts, they say, are sapping FEMA's long-term ability to cushion the blow of hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tornados, wildfires and other natural disasters.

Among the casualties have been FEMA's "mitigation" programs, measures designed to minimize damage before storms happen. Elliston noted last October that FEMA canceled and cut back many such programs, including in you-know-where:

    In North Carolina, a state regularly damaged by hurricanes and floods, FEMA recently refused the state's request to buy backup generators for emergency support facilities. And the budget cuts have halved the funding for a mitigation program that saved an estimated $8.8 million in recovery costs in three eastern N.C. communities alone after 1999's Hurricane Floyd. In Louisiana, another state vulnerable to hurricanes, requests for flood mitigation funds were rejected by FEMA this summer [2004].

Elliston connected all the dots and concluded:

    Consequently, the residents of these and other disaster-prone states will find the government less able to help them when help is needed most, and both states and the federal government will be forced to shoulder more costs after disasters strike.

    In addition, the White House has pushed for privatization of essential government services, including disaster management, and merged FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, where natural disaster programs are often sidelined by counter-terrorism programs. Along the way, morale at FEMA has plummeted, and many of the agency's most experienced personnel have left for work in other agencies or private corporations.

    In June, Pleasant Mann, a 16-year FEMA veteran who heads the agency's government employee union, wrote members of Congress to warn of the agency's decay.

    "Over the past three-and-one-half years, FEMA has gone from being a model agency to being one where funds are being misspent, employee morale has fallen, and our nation's emergency management capability is being eroded," he wrote. "Our professional staff are being systematically replaced by politically connected novices and contractors."

    So while they're far from where hurricanes hit hardest, FEMA's Washington-based disaster managers find themselves in the middle of a perfect storm of their own.

Elliston's story was prescient, but then so were the great reporting jobs done by others, including the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida in 2004 and the Times-Picayune in New Orleans (way back in 2002, as colleague Syd Schanberg points out.)

All those stories exposed the danger that lurked from the Bush regime's wrongheaded policies and behavior.

You don't have to be Jewish to love levees. But I guess the Pentagon wanted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to focus on Iraq, instead of shoring up the homeland.

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