Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Deadly Indifference by Michael Brown & Ted Schwarz

Brown, director of FEMA during Hurricane Katrina, kept a journal of his experiences, running to several hundred pages. Four years after he left the Bush White House he started writing this book. Other high Bush officials began writing and Brown saw that their writing was often in conflict with his (recorded) experience. Self-serving autobiographers were spinning details of the past. Brown realized most people did not know the planning involved and what should have happened after Katrina. He also realized the average person was not going to search the Internet to find the records being made public that would prove the accuracy of what Brown has written in this book. Karl Rove and others were pinning the blame on Brown.
Brown felt it was time the truth came out. It was time the public knew about the “bad choices [that] changed a serious situation into a needlessly deadly one.” (203)
He covers the role of FEMA and how they do planning. He notes that the states must ask for assistance. The politicians were hesitant. If the hurricane veered off, might they be liable to lawsuits from disgruntled business owners?
FEMA does not possess the resources and personnel to respond to disasters. It only has teams to coordinate state, local, and federal personnel. FEMA does provide training and resources to many of the teams but they are not FEMA employees. They are local fire departments and paramedic units.
The federal government does have strategically placed supply centers with emergency generators, cots, drinking water, medical supplies, MREs, etc. The government does not own a fleet of trucks or buses needed to transport the supplies to the area of need. Privately owned trucks and their drivers would be contracted.
Thirty-eight urban search and rescue teams are spread around the country. They are made up of specialists from city and county departments. They receive special training and equipment, then teams are called in during a disaster.
Brown notes that after September 11, 2001, the focus of homeland security was terrorism, not all kinds of disasters. Money was taken from natural disaster response and was authorized for counterterrorism. (62)
As Katrina approached New Orleans as a category 2, FEMA waited for the request for assistance, as Jeb Bush had done for Florida. The governor of Louisiana decided not to act until the mayor of New Orleans asked her to do so. The mayor delayed. Then at 11 p.m. August 26, the governor declared a state of emergency and requested federal assistance. FEMA began to mobilize resources. Some of the teams had to come from a distance.
The director of the National Hurricane Center called the mayor, telling him the hurricane required immediate evacuation. Instead the mayor “declared his city to be in a state of emergency and suggested that the residents voluntarily evacuate.” (78)
While the needed evacuation order would eventually be given, it was too late to be effective. The city and it inhabitants suffered the results of the political game.
After the disaster the politicians tried to cover their mistakes. Bush said, “I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.” (83) Recordings of the conferences before the disaster proved otherwise.
The bureaucracy that resulted when FEMA was placed under the Dept. of Homeland Security proved to be a problem. The request Brown made for buses for New Orleans got lost in the layers of administration. When he realized this, it was too late to do any good. (109)
The destruction area covered ninety-three thousand square miles, the same land mass as Great Britain.
The first line of responsibility is the states. “Only when the response and recovery to a disaster is beyond the ability of the state and local government is FEMA to respond.” (148)
Brown gives several examples of political posturing that caused lives. One example involves the navy hospital ship in the area. Brown had been in dialogue with the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana. They agreed that the Navy hospital ship should go to New Orleans, as the hospitals in Mississippi were functioning. Senator Lott was livid and pulled strings to get the ship to Mississippi. Brown says because a senator wanted a photo op, a vital resource went to a place where it was not needed, denying aid where it was very much needed.
Brown certainly was not innocent of all wrong. He admits he made mistakes too. He just wants to set the record straight. It is sad to read that for many of the politicians, there own future was considered more important than the welfare of the people they represented.

Taylor Trade Publishing, 219 pages.

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