Let Them Eat Brownie

It's not about FEMA--it's about the president and the black hole of "Homeland Security"

Around the time Allbaugh left, FEMA was formally absorbed into Bush's new Department of Homeland Security and stripped of its powers to handle disaster response planning. The agency was practically if not formally a dead letter. Apparently it no longer counts for much even as a patronage vessel: Allbaugh's successor, his college roommate Mike Brown, was a third-rater all the way--a one-time supervisor of horse show judges whose bosses eventually deemed that job too much for Brown and asked him to quit. According to the Think Progress blog, his deputies at FEMA include other clients from the bottom rungs of the patronage system--minor functionaries from past Bush campaigns and the like. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that a number of staff jobs at FEMA have not been filled at all for some time.

The sort of people we're talking about are hacks, and not even A- or B-list hacks. Such is the standing of FEMA now. Before Katrina, the most noteworthy thing the agency had done under Brown was to funnel a lot of dollars to "victims" of Hurricane Frances in Miami's Dade County in the fall of 2004. Frances hit Dade with nothing worse than a bad thunderstorm, but federal dollars from FEMA coffers started raining down on the county, and in particular on some of the poorest parts of Miami, a couple of months in advance of the 2004 election--with few questions asked and no proof of loss required in many cases.

The influx of unwarranted federal aid dollars prompted a months-long investigation in south Florida's Sun-Sentinel newspapers. (The blogger Jason Leopold has written an excellent summary of its political aspects.) "In the vast majority of hurricanes, other than those in Florida in 2004," a former Texas insurance commissioner later told the Washington Post, "complaints are rife that FEMA has vastly underpaid hurricane victims. The Frances overpayments are questionable given the timing of the election and Florida's importance as a battleground state."

FEMA as such is barely mentioned and never discussed in the base version of DHS's December '04 National Response Plan, which runs to 100-plus pages counting preface and appendices. This is the long-range emergency plan that DHS and the Bush administration purport to be phasing in as of this year, and the only references to FEMA are buried in long lists of the various bodies involved in "emergency support functions." Whatever sort of beating Bush takes in the short term, the administration has to be delighted at this scapegoating of an agency it's already rendered defunct. This must conjure hopes that they can wriggle out of the extraordinary mess they've made by doing away with Brown, shredding any stacks of old FEMA letterhead left lying around, and promising the improved DHS will do better in the future.

The main question, post-Katrina, is not what went wrong with the coordinated federal disaster plan. There wasn't any coordinated federal disaster plan. Why not? Friends and putative foes of the Bush administration have mostly concurred in putting it down to Bush's personal obsession with terrorism contingencies. That's a smidge too generous. The administration's early refusal to act reflected the federal government's increasingly Malthusian approach to the welfare of the surplus population, brought to an unexpectedly dramatic head, and its cluelessness once it did get moving raised larger questions about the whole mysterious edifice of Homeland Security, which theoretically replaced FEMA as the federal government's disaster response clearinghouse. We can now see that when DHS absorbed FEMA, it put in its place... nothing at all. It might be time to ask what does go on at the Department of Homeland Security. The veil of secrecy that attaches to the terror-busting apparatus has left the Bush gang with a free hand in building what amounts to, among other things, its own secret bureaucracy. Does anyone really suppose it's less plagued by corruption and empty suits than, say, FEMA--or the Oval Office?

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