Along the Tracks

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Grill one, grill ‘em all

Yesterday, former FEMA Director Mike Brown was questioned at length by House Select “Bipartisan” Katrina Investigation Committee members – at least those who attended; most Democrats boycotted (in perhaps the most inane display of partisanship I’ve seen, but that’s another post). The general impression (from watching extended excerpts on “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer”) I got was that the Republicans were determined to look tough, even accusatory (the two Democrats who did come demonstrated the same attitude).

Thus, as you might expect, Brown was defensive, giving mostly pat answers and a few sharp one-liners back at the representatives, and deflecting the criticism away from himself toward the local and state government officials, whom in total he called “dysfunctional.”

I did glean one piece of useful information from the questioning, although it was unclear from the PBS excerpts if the inquisitors similarly noted the revelation.

Brown was in contact with White House officials, including the president, prior to the storm, according to his answers. President Bush made a federal disaster declaration on Friday, so it appears the messages were getting through from Brown. However, Brown said his primary frustration was a lack of urgency on the part of Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to get the evacuation rolling. He was asking the White House to add to the pressure, he claims. This would seem to fit well with the Saturday-Sunday timeline information already known, which shows the president and federal officials finally getting fed up (accidental pun) with Blanco and Nagin Sunday morning, and about to “tell them” rather than “encourage them” to begin the evacuation. That’s the point where Nagin and Blanco finally (allegedly?) did it on their own, less than 24 hours before the storm hit.

This nugget of info, to me at least, is damaging to the president. Yes, I recognize the local and state leaders were “dysfunctional,” in Brown’s terminology. Yet, if Brown’s statements are true, that he was seeking the president’s assistance in cracking the heads of those two nitwits and getting the evacuation ordered Saturday, then Bush and his White House advisers were woefully tardy in following Brown’s advice. Also, the continued communication during the hurricane, during the levee breaches and in the aftermath, if also accurately depicted by Brown, should have been seen by Bush as overwhelming evidence of local and state failure.

This really goes back to my primary criticism of Bush: He didn’t step in to provide leadership when the vacuum became clear. With Brown’s testimony, I’d move that point backward from the Tuesday after the hurricane to the Saturday before.

One more point on the committee hearings: I’d better see equally tough questioning of Gov. Blanco today. In particular, I’ll be expecting to hear answers to these questions:
*It was clear by Saturday morning, Aug. 27, that New Orleans was in the bullseye for a potential Category 5 storm, with landfall expected Sunday night to Monday morning. Why wasn’t an evacuation ordered immediately?
*Planning to shelter evacuated populations in state is the responsibility of state government. The feds provide funding, materials and people, where requested. Why were you so ill-prepared to house your evacuated population, and why didn’t you request greater federal assistance prior to the storm, when people and material could be moved relatively easily?
*Why weren’t YOUR National Guard troops in the city in force immediately after the storm passed, and at the Superdome in much greater force before the storm?
*Why weren’t some of YOUR National Guard troops assigned to secure the Convention Center, the bridges and other places where people were being sent after the levees breached?
*Why didn’t you allow prepositioned material and responders, in particular the Red Cross and Salvation Army (which are FEMA partners), to provide relief to the Superdome, Convention Center and other places where people were gathered?

I have plenty more questions, but to me these are crucial. If they aren’t asked, this initial congressional hearing really is a sham.

UPDATE: I was mistaken that Blanco would testify before the House committee today. She appeared before the Senate, where she was given the kid-glove treatment.

I expected her to be questioned in a similar manner as Brown. It looks like the decision was made to make Brown the scapegoat and that's where they left it.

I think the real error was Congress allowing FEMA to be under Homeland Security. Yet none of them seem to be stepping up to take responsibility for that.
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