Late Monday morning on August 29, 2005 a little more than 4 hours after Katrina slammed into New Orleans, and just hours after arriving in Baton Rouge, FEMA director and Bush the Younger’s childhood friend Michael Brown conducted a video conference briefing with the President who sat and listened quietly in Crawford Texas. Brown emphatically relayed to Bush, “This is, to put it mildly, the big one, I think. ” Then Brown voiced his fear that “the government might not have the capacity to respond to a catastrophe within a catastrophe” The Superdome, he said was not equipped to be “a refuge of last resort.
” The President asked no questions (A. P. 2006). Although Brown did a fairly decent job of trying to convey the potentially devastating nature of what was occurring, the real problem was that Brown had not been on the ground in Louisiana long enough to accurately understand the true impact of the storm (Brinkley 2006). By the time that he would come to realize that his lack of experience was simply no match for the enormity of this disaster, it may have been too late. The storm would ultimately leave 1,322 people dead, and 2,300 people missing in its wake (A. P. 2006).
Two years later, in the autumn of 2007, FEMA and Michael Brown would be called upon again. First water and now fire had come to claim the day. What a difference a disaster would make. In the early afternoon of Tuesday October 23, 2007, at the Southwest D. C. offices of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, FEMA Deputy Administrator Admiral Harvey E. Johnson stepped up to a podium. He was there to give the national media a 1PM press briefing on the California wild fires that were currently raging throughout a large swath of land and threatening homes from Santa Barbra County to the US-Mexican border.
The fires had been raging for three days. In time, they would force the largest civilian evacuation in the United States’ history, as one million residents of seven California counties were force to leave their homes. While the camera feeds fed the press conference to Fox News and MSNBC along with a few other news agencies, Johnson began fielding questions of a common variety. Someone wanted to know about the traffic of commodities coming into California. Another person asked how FEMA would deal with people who refused to evacuate.
Then another person asked the Deputy Administrator “Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far? ” And yet another one asked “Are there any lessons to be learned from Katrina? ” “I am very happy with FEMA’s response so far, Johnson said [it’s a] very smoothly, very efficiently performing team … And so I think what you’re really seeing here is the benefit of experience, the benefit of good leadership and the benefit of good partnership, none of which were present in Katrina. ” (Kamen 2007) Johnson spoke like a true professional, answering all of their questions with a unique sense of cordiality.
However, this was precisely because none of these people asking the questions were actually reporters at all. This was a staged event! It was not real! Due to fact that the Deputy Administrator’s office had botched the scheduling of this event, and ‘real’ pool reporters were only afforded a 15 minutes notice, none of them were able to show up. The FEMA staff decided to ‘fake a move’ (Ibid). Thus, while the cameras that were hooked up to their dedicated feeds were rolling in earnest, this was all a lie. Two day later, the gig was up!
This ill-conceived stunt gained a staring role in the next few news cycles, which only served to bring back the haunting memories of the striking ineptness displayed by FEMA during the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. This immediately prompted Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff to comment, “I think it was one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I’ve seen since I’ve been in government” (MSNBC 2007). White House Press Secretary Dana Perino was a bit more subdued in her criticism, “It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House or that we — we certainly don’t condone it” (Ibid).
However, this was about as far as the analogies and the memories would be allowed to go. Twenty-four hours before Katrina made landfall, a FEMA executive in Denton Texas turned down a ‘Red High Priority’ plea for 300 Rubber Boats from the Louisiana Department of Wild Life and Fishing. The official simply scrawled “REQUEST DENIED” across the top of the document (Brinkley 2006). FEMA also turned down a U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service offer to save the lives of people who may have been stranded in Orleans, St. Bernard, and St. Tammany parishes.
Furthermore, from his community in West Palm Beach Florida, Representative Mark Foley offered airplanes that were ‘on the ready’ to evacuate victims. So too, he was turned down as well. So it went with a host of reports stating that FEMA seemed strangely ambivalent to any kind of aid for Katrina victims (Ibid). Five months later, the Senate Homeland Security Committee which oversees the Department of Homeland Security of which FEMA is a part, released over 800,000 pages of memos, emails, strategy plans, and intradepartmental correspondence.
These now public documents tell the shocking story of a government agency rife with ineptness. That Sunday before the storm, the U. S Department of the Interior offered substantial material aid of the sort that would naturally be needed in any disaster of this kind. They were also turned down. Senate Homeland Security Chairwoman Senator Susan Collins (R-Main) bristled at these findings, “That is incredible to me” she said (Ibid). No one seemed to understand why FEMA would turn down aid with a catastrophe of this magnitude, especially when it was being offered from a number of its own peer agencies.
Even more riveting was the slew of reports that the U. S. government was refusing the massive amounts of aid offered from capitals around the world. From millions of dollars from citizens and governments in Europe, to barrels of oil from Venezuela; and 1600 disaster trained physicians from Cuba; the snubbing of this aid was mind-boggling (Ibid). What’s more, rumors continue to abound even until this day, after more than three years, of shocking scenes of official neglect that existed in New Orleans during those horror-filled hours in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.
Stories of widespread police brutality and even White vigilantes ‘hunting down Blackfolk’, have become just one part of an International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita which has aimed the majority of its widespread enmity towards FEMA (Langley 2007). The tornadoes of despair have not ceased for the victims of Katrina, and the heartache still abounds as well. Twenty-six months later, after wildfires went wild in California, FEMA Administrator David Paulison stepped forward immediately to tell the American People, “The safety of the firefighters, individuals and families in the impacted areas is of utmost concern.
” (FEMA 2007). Contrary to the widespread sense of government disregard that many felt in response to Katrina, the victims of the California Wildfires were immediately afforded a sense of assurance that FEMA was working with the highest sense of urgency on their behalf. Victims of this disaster were instantly promised that this would not be a “repeat of Katrina” (Philbin 2007). So it was, that with amazing efficiency, within hours FEMA had approved grants that allowed the state of California to recoup as much as 75% of the cost of fighting the wildfires.
They had a joint field office open within 48 hours. FEMA’s regional office in California also stayed open 24/7, and coordinated its efforts with state, local, and federal agencies, including the Department of the Interior, D. O. T, the Army Corps of Engineers, Health and Human Services, and the U. S. Forest Service (EKU October 24, 2007). FEMA put its resources on full blast for the residents of Southern California, opening shelters, handing out blankets, food and water. From Katrina in August of 2005 to the California Wildfires of 2007 it was as if we were watching a Tale of Two Cities.
One can only hope that FEMA keeps itself together and that tragedies coupled with that kind of governmental ineptitude never happen again. References Associated Press (March 1, 2006) (Video File) Washingtonpost. com Katrina: the warnings bush received. Retrieved from http://www. washingtonpost. com/wp- dyn/content//video/2006/03/01/V12006030101864 html Brinkley, Douglas The great deluge: Hurricane katrina, new orleans, and the mississippi gulf coast. Harper Collins 2006 334-335, 250 CNN (Tuesday October 23, 2007) Lessons from Katrina being applied to fire response. Updated 8:29 PM Retrieved from htt://www. cnn.
com/2007/POLITICS/10/fire. fema/index. html EKU Fire Chief (website) (Oct 24, 2007) FEMA responds to california wildfires. Retrieved from http://firechief. com/leadership/incident- command/Fema_wildfire_10242007/ FEMA (October 24, 2007) Contingency Planning and Management Federal emergency management agency coordinating national response to California wildfires. Retrieved from http://www. contingencyplanning. com/articles/52388/> Kamen, A (October 26, 2007) Washington Post FEMA meets the press: Which happens to be… fema. p. A19 Langley, D (July 22, 2007) Worker’s World Katrina-Rita tribunal to focus on u. s.
crimes Retrieved from http://www. workers. org/2007/us/katrina-rita-0726/ MSNBC (Saturday October 27, 2007) Chertoff blast FEMA’s faux press conference. Calls agency’s use of fake reporters ‘one of the dumbest’ things he’s seen. Updated 7:21 PM. [Retrieved At:] <http://www. msnbc. com/id21490838/> Philbin, P (October 24, 2007) (transcript) California wildfires: fema responds. Agency vows aggressive effort on wildfires. Washington Post. com. External Affairs Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency. [Retrieved At:] <http://www. washingtonpost. com/wp- dyn/content/discussion/2007/10/24/DI2007102400890. html>