Those were the wise, sage words of Unelected President George W. Bush to Michael "Brownie" Brown, the former head of FEMA, as he toured the region ravaged by Hurricane Katrina on the Friday after the storm. "You're doing a heck of a job." Let those words simmer in your mind for several blissful moments, please. They underscore, in the strongest of statements, just how out of touch with reality this President truly is.
Finally taking time out from his very busy schedule, on October 19, the "other" Michael, Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Insecurity, finally met with a House panel investigating the federal government's Katrina response.
Chertoff took umbrage when questioned by the lawmakers about a number of events prior to and during the hurricane. Oh things like a) why he worked from home Aug. 27, two days before Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, b) why he made a previously scheduled trip to Atlanta on Aug. 30, and c) why President Bush stayed at his Texas ranch until Aug. 31. "I don't think there was a sense of a lack of urgency," Chertoff said.
Excuse me? What? "a sense of a lack of urgency"? Can you explain that comment? Did you mean to say "as sense of urgency?" or did you really mean to say "a lack of urgency?" Either way, Mr. Chertoff, me thinks something smells terribly moldy about your testimony and the Administration's behavior.
Here's why. Prior to making landfall, Dr. Max Mayfield, director of the National Hurricane Center, said that officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security, including FEMA Director Mike Brown and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, listened in on electronic briefings given by his staff and were advised of the storm's potential deadly effects. Mayfield said that his staff made the strength of the hurricane and its potentially disastrous consequences clear. They warned of a storm surge capable of overtopping levees in New Orleans and winds strong enough to blow out windows of high-rise buildings. Mayfield said the briefings included information on expected wind speed, storm surge, rainfall and the potential for tornados to accompany the storm as it came ashore.
But in his testimony, Chertoff painted a picture of a government response that was "overwhelmed by the magnitude of the storm."
"If you start to plan in an emergency, you're not planning, you're improvising," he said.
Chertoff outlined his deteriorating relations with Brownie after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. Testifying on Brownie's accessibility and responsiveness in the midst of the disaster, Chertoff commented, "Let me put it this way: Michael Brown didn't call me. I didn't speak to him prior to Sunday (Aug. 28) and have him tell me that he was having a problem with the governors."
On Tuesday, August 30, the day the levies broke and water engulfed New Orleans, Chertoff said that he had begun attempts to contact Brownie that morning. By afternoon, "I made it very clear that I expected Mr. Brown forthwith to get in touch with me," Chertoff added. He also testified that he "lost my temper to some degree with his chief of staff."
Chertoff was unable to reach Brown until nearly 8 p.m. that night.
Yet on the morning of Friday, September 2, during his famous photo op in Alabama, Bush uttered those now infamous words, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA director is working 24 - they're working 24 hours a day."
In further testimony, he said, "I knew I became more involved in operational matters than I would normally expect to be or want to be, given the fact that I had a battlefield commander on the ground. I am not a hurricane expert. I've got to rely on people to execute the details of the plan."
How many times have we heard the contradictory statements by - well almost everyone in the Administration - about how surprised and overwhelmed they were, particularly at the breaching of New Orleans' levies?
MORE CONTRADICTIONS OR SIMPLY LIES?
We've heard story after story about how FEMA's manpower, expertise and infrastructure had been stripped since its takeover by the Department of Homeland Insecurity. But in the face of all of that, Chertoff denied Brownie's assertions, made last month to the House panel, that department budget and personnel cuts led to "the emaciation of FEMA." Chertoff said that from 2001 to 2005, FEMA's "core" budget grew 28 percent, to $447 million, and its staff 19 percent, to 2,445.
With support from department agencies such as the Coast Guard, Chertoff said, "FEMA has better resources, and . . . it brings more to the table now than it did in the previous five, six, seven years."
But in virtually the same breath he added that they had neither the modern supply systems nor the communications gear nor the needed links to local communities in advance. Chertoff vowed to "re-engineer" U.S. preparedness after the storm that killed more than 1,200 people and devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. BUT WAIT....I thought you just said, "FEMA has better resources, and . . . it brings more to the table now than it did in the previous five, six, seven years." And that FEMA's "core" budget grew 28 percent, to $447 million, and its staff 19 percent, to 2,445? What was Tom Ridge, the founder of Homeland Insecurity, doing during his years of service? See, Mr. Chertoff? We can't put all the blame on you. You are the relative newbie. But it seems clear that you've done virtually nothing as well.
You know, if you throw enough words at Congress, the press, or the American people, we'll just get befuddled and surrender to your clearly more infinite wisdom. Mr. Chertoff, Mr. President, YOU ARE NOT PREPARED! WE ARE NOT PREPARED! You can medivac a wounded U.S. soldier or marine off a remote battlefield in Iraq in minutes, but you can't drop drinking water from a helicopter into New Orleans or Mississippi even in the days following a hurricane.
Our federal government, at its highest and most involved levels, was warned beforehand about the likely severity of Hurricane Katrina...and still did nothing. Perhaps even worse than doing nothing - because many people do take issue with the charge of "nothing" - whatever you did was incompetent.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff acknowledged that Hurricane Katrina "overwhelmed" FEMA and exposed major flaws in the nation's preparations for terrorism and natural disasters. "We certainly have to fill out the ranks of FEMA in terms of its senior level with experienced staff who can deal with all of the elements" of its mission. "We now know that [FEMA's] capabilities were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the storm," he said. No kidding!
Well the bottom line remains. FEMA has primary responsibility for managing the national response to a catastrophic disaster.
OH MY GOD!
Can you say AVIAN FLU?
We are all too familiar with the adage "a disaster waiting to happen"? We folks, we just had one, and the response of the government(s) to which we pay our hard-earned (for most of us) taxes was invisible. And guess what? They're not finished responding. They have tens of billions, if not hundreds of billions, of our tax dollars yet to dish out. On no-bid contracts, on likely reconstruction that will spend inflated dollars for projects that are not likely to benefit middle- and lower class citizens nearly as much as they will enrich the already rich. Why they are already talking about the positive economic benefit the Gulf hurricanes are likely to have on our economy.
But here's the scary part and this is my point. We are so far from prepared to address an avian flu pandemic, we are so far from prepared to address the detonation of a nuclear device by terrorists in a major U.S. city, we are so far from prepared to address a major earthquake, nor any other catastrophic event on the American "homeland."
We are governed by either the biggest liars in American political history, or the most out of touch with reality, or simply the most incompetent. And in either scenario, it is you and I that are most at risk. This isn't an issue of yet more innocent civilian Iraqis losing their lives thanks to us on the other side of the planet. We are left at risk, without a safety net, in our own homes. And if the fascist, so-called Christian Right continues to get their way, we may soon be without social safety nets, as well.