Let Them Eat Brownie

Amid the rigors of round-the-clock Katrina coverage, the news media have managed to seize a minute here and there to bear witness to the swell job they're doing. The most fulsome praise has accrued to the cable networks, whose work has been widely called TV news's greatest hour. A BBC commentary wondered aloud if the hurricane had "saved" American broadcast news and exulted that "the gloves have come off" at last. You could see why: All week long, over and over, the TV showed footage of reporters behaving like representatives of a free press--contradicting official cant with recitations of fact, daring to get angry when they were stonewalled, drawing their own inferences as to what was really going on around them. This put both sides on unfamiliar footing and made for some great television.

But if TV coverage in those first days after the storm was gripping and valuable, it's goofy to suppose that Katrina somehow shocked the moral heart of news media and set it to beating again. What we saw on TV in Katrina's immediate wake involved spontaneous moral outrage, yes, but more to the point it involved the rare spectacle of reporters covering major events without the aid of press briefings and government-defined talking points. One little-remarked consequence of the executive branch's MIA status in New Orleans was that no one showed up to instruct reporters on what the day's important stories were or where their cameras should be pointed. For days, journalists on scene were on their own to figure out what to film, where to go, who to talk to. This almost never happens on any major story, at least inside the United States.

The TV news free-speech movement lasted roughly four days. It all began to turn that first Friday after the storm, when federal troops and press flaks started arriving in number. The networks still beamed pictures of the desperate throngs milling outside the Superdome and the Convention Center. Reporters and pundits kept on hammering at the first wave of federal silence. But once the buses started carrying survivors out of the city, newsreaders finally had their script: Bad start, but the system was getting to work. Independent reportage by the networks wilted away after that, though federal officials went right on failing in numerous respects. TV news proffered only scattered references to the continuing mess the feds were making of aid and rescue workers' efforts owing to various factors: lousy communication in the field, capricious and seemingly perverse decisions by managers on the ground, countless logistical fuckups, and growing hostility between state and local aid workers and National Guard troops on one side and Department of Homeland Security apparatchiks on the other. (The single best source I've seen is Judd Legum's excellent Katrina timeline, and here are more details: [1] [2] [3] [4])

That weekend, even as Tim Russert kicked sand in DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff's face and everyone pummeled FEMA's Mike Brown, TV news returned to the business of broadcasting White House obfuscations as outrageous as the ones it took Chertoff and Brown to task for. Most glaring was the ridiculous claim that Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco had tied federal hands by failing to declare a state of emergency (this was simply a lie; she had done so before the storm hit) or by neglecting to ask for the right help from the right places. It was all hooey.

As to the law, the 1974 Stafford Act is premised on the recognition that there are some disasters of such magnitude that the federal government must take charge, and it makes provision for letting the feds take over unilaterally in extreme situations, with or without the blessing of affected governments. According to a summary of Stafford contained in DHS's own National Response Plan (December 2004), "The President may declare a major disaster or emergency... if an event is beyond the combined response capabilities of the State and affected local governments." One of George W. Bush's own orders, Homeland Security Presidential Directive 5, codifies that prerogative as DHS policy: The feds may intervene to take control when "The Secretary of Homeland Security has been directed to assume responsibility for managing a domestic incident by the President."

There is lots more lawyerly verbiage, but that's the bottom line. This means exactly what you think it does, which is what common sense has dictated from the start: Following a catastrophe such as this, a president may declare a state of emergency and put federal officials in charge of the response whenever he wants to. Period.

All the critics directing their ire at the specific shortcomings of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its hapless horseman Brown are missing the point altogether, and setting up the Bush administration to win the political war over what happened in New Orleans. The story here is not that FEMA has terrible managers. The story is that FEMA, as we the public have been led to think of it, does not really exist anymore. You have only to consider the haven for patronage Bush made of it from the start. First he picked Joe Allbaugh, his former Texas chief of staff and political fixer, to head the agency. Allbaugh, who had no previous emergency management experience, spent the better part of two years fattening his rolodex and then departed to sell his connections to contractors seeking government deals. In the past week, he has been seen networking round the Gulf Coast.  

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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