Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Tin Ears and Brownie Points

[[D I S A S T E R S]] * If you thought the Bush administration might actually be getting its act together again after the Hurricane Katrina fiasco, think again. News that Michael D. Brown, the widely pilloried former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is still drawing a government paycheck, though now as a “consultant” helping FEMA to diagnose failures in the government’s disaster-response efforts, highlights this White House’s tin ear for public and political opinion. As Salon’s Aaron Kinney observes, “In other words, Brown will help investigate what went wrong with the agency that he himself ran in circles while tens of thousands withered for days in festering conditions in New Orleans after the storm struck.”

Hey, your tax dollars at work.

Less than three weeks ago, Brown, barraged with criticism for incompetence and dubious credentials to hold his job in the first place, was relieved of his responsibilities for managing hurricane relief efforts along the Gulf Coast. He resigned his post three days later, only to be replaced, at least temporarily, by David Paulison, the FEMA official who was lampooned in 2003 for suggesting that duct tape and plastic sheeting were must-have components of any American home’s “survival kit” in preparation for a terrorist attack. It was later reported that Brown had been shopping his résumé around, but to no good effect (“He’s radioactive,” one executive told U.S. News & World Report). Now, though, it turns out he’s set in the employment department for another month, at a minimum--with apparently much of that time to be spent retailing excuses for himself and George W. Bush, and trying to cast the burden of blame for post-Katrina failures onto Louisiana’s Democratic leaders, instead.

Appearing this morning before a panel of U.S. House Republicans investigating hurricane-response cock-ups, Brown claimed that his “biggest mistake” before and after Katrina’s August 29 strike was not recognizing that “Louisiana was dysfunctional.” “I very strongly personally regret that I was unable to persuade Governor [Kathleen] Blanco and Mayor [Ray] Nagin to sit down, get over their differences, and work together,” Brown said. “I just couldn’t pull that off.” (Blanco and Nagin are both Democrats, though Nagin, a former Republican, contributed to Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign.) By contrast, Brown told the committee, FEMA’s methods were successful in Mississippi and Alabama, both of which just happen to have Republican governors.

Such testimony echoes charges that Brown, a lawyer and former Arabian horse association commissioner, has been spreading ever since he had to step down at FEMA, as he partisanly seeks to absolve the Bush White House of complicity in the disaster that killed more than 1,000 people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. But the tactic doesn’t seem to be going over all that well with Capitol Hill pols from either party. “I’m happy you left,” remarked Representative Christopher Shays (R-Connecticut), reflecting today on Brown’s performance at FEMA. “That kind of look in the lights like a deer [response] tells me you weren’t capable of doing that job.” Although Democrats have largely boycotted the House hearings, calling them a partisan whitewash (“Questioning one Republican crony will not get to the truth of the disastrous federal response to Hurricane Katrina and prevent it from happening again,” declares House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California), Democratic Representative Gene Taylor of Mississippi was on hand to reprimand Brown: “The disconnect was, people thought there was some federal expertise out there. There wasn’t. Not from you.” And Representative William Jefferson (D-Louisiana) contested Brown’s characterization of his state as “dysfunctional,” citing a 2004 FEMA analysis which predicted that local police and firefighters would quickly become victims of any serious hurricane, and that a “proactive federal response” would be required. “The help just didn’t come ... and people suffered from it,” Jefferson opined. He noted that Bush himself called the federal reaction “unacceptable.”

Brown, though, was having none of it. When panel chairman Tom Davis (R-Virginia) tried encouraging the former FEMA chief to spell out some things his agency could have done to better evacuate New Orleans, improve communications in the region, and restore order, Brown fired back: “Those are not FEMA roles. FEMA doesn’t evacuate communities. FEMA does not do law enforcement. FEMA does not do communications.” In keeping with conservative dogma, Brown maintained that Americans themselves must be more active in preparing for natural disasters, and that they shouldn’t expect government to step in and save everything. But that didn’t sit well with Representative Kay Granger (R-Texas).“I don’t know how you can sleep at night,” she said. “You lost the battle.”

ADDENDUM: From the Bull Moose blog: “Bush has become the conservatives’ [Jimmy] Carter--a hapless President wandering aimlessly adrift across the country from disaster to disaster. W. has even told us to drive less to conserve gasoline (which is not a bad idea, but it has to infuriate the Hummer-loving right). It is only a matter of time [before] Jimmy Bush urges us to turn down the thermostat. Will George W. Carter address the nation in a cardigan and bemoan a national malaise?” Read more.

READ MORE:How Many More Michael Browns Are Out There?,” by Mark Thompson, Karen Tumulty, and Mike Allen (Time); “Bush May Find It Hard to Resist Katrina Commission” (Reuters); “Many Contracts for Storm Work Raise Questions,” by Eric Lipton and Ron Nixon (The New York Times); “FEMA Plans to Reimburse Faith Groups for Aid,” by Alan Cooperman and Elizabeth Williamson (The Washington Post); “Return of the Crony,” by Jason Leopold (The Huffington Report); “When ‘Connected’ Means ‘Corrupted,” by Robert Scheer (The Nation); “The KatrinaRita,” by Molly Ivins (The Free Press); “Hoover Reconsidered” (The Boston Globe); Katrina Disaster Timeline (Talking Points Memo).

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