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From Incompetence to Negligence

I’ve been watching a lot of Frontline lately on PBS . I’ve Tivo’d it forever, but rarely watched. Two nights ago I watched The Storm , their analysis of Hurrican Katrina’s effect on New Orleans, and the government reponse to it (at all levels). Go watch it online , I’ll wait.

Back? Good. So what struck me the most was not Brown’s complete denial of responsibility for FEMA’s actions or his seemingly complete disconnect. And it wasn’t what Bush did after Katrina, either. It was what Bush did in 2001, 4 years before Katrina struck. If you’ll recall (since you just watched it), part of the show focused on the history of FEMA, and how it has been managed. Let me present you with an minimal, paraphased timeline:

  • 1992: Hurricane Andrew strikes Florida. It misses Miami, but devestates Homestead. Not until the area emergency management director goes on television and castigates the federal [non-]response does public outrage force the White House to send in FEMA.
  • 1993: President Clinton, recognizing the political cost to Bush 41 of FEMA’s delayed deployment makes a change in the way FEMA is headed. Instead of the political cronies that had headed FEMA during Reagan 2 and Bush 41 he appoints James Lee Witt to head FEMA. The key difference here is that Witt actually had experience in emergency management.
  • 2000: During presidential debates, G. W. Bush says (and I’m paraphrasing), “I actually have to compliment this administration; they’ve done a great job with appointing Witt to head FEMA”
  • 2001: After being elected, Bush 43 declines to keep Witt as head of FEMA. While it may be understandable that Bush 43 wanted someone else in the job (it is his right as President, after all), what is not understandable is the man chosen to replace Witt: Joe Allbaugh. Allbaugh’s apparent primary qualification: he lead Bush 43’s national presidential campaign.

This is beyond the apparent disconnect post-Katrina. This is downright negligent. And Bush 43 has no one to pass the buck to — he himself acknowledged the job Witt did, and one must presume he’s capable of the simple analysis required to figure out why Witt had succeeded where others failed.

You can debate whether or not FEMA should have been moved under the Department of Homeland Security all you want. You can debate whether or not Brown did a bad job (he did). What remains true is that the Bush administration ignored success and appointed a crony (a crony with a bad haircut at that!). And if this really is the “CEO Presidency”, then Bush should be taken to task for this blatantly negligent act.