The federal government is not the solution to all of our problems. It does, however, play a critical role in providing services, such as disaster relief, that cannot or will not be adequately provided by individuals, private business, or state and local governments. In order to do so, government must be provided with adequate resources and the experienced leaders needed to carry out its mission effectively. Unfortunately, time after time Republican politicians have offered us little more than an orthodoxy of privatization, budgetary cutbacks, and cronyism that does not serve the needs of the American people. A poster child example of the failure of this Republican philosophy is the Hurricane Katrina disaster.
Five years ago this week, my wife and I were on an eight-hour-long drive to visit family for the Labor Day weekend. The entire ride we were tuned into NPR listening to coverage of the horrible disaster that was unfolding in New Orleans and parts of Mississippi due to Katrina. The impacts were staggering – at least 1,800 people dead, hundreds of thousands of people displaced, 80% of the city of New Orleans flooded, more than $80 billion in damages. For days, we saw images and heard news reports of thousands of people huddled on their rooftops waiting to be rescued as the waters rose, and tens of thousands more marooned in the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center with little access to food, water, or medical care.
What struck me most listening to the news commentary was the complete absence of the federal government in providing aid to these folks. Within a day or two of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, non-profit organizations, state and local governments, and hardy volunteers were on the scene, but they were clearly overwhelmed. As with most major natural disasters, only the federal government had the resources needed to provide the type of response this disaster called for. The federal agency in charge of disaster relief – the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”) – however, was nowhere to be found. FEMA utterly failed to coordinate a response or provide aid to those who had not been evacuated. In fact, three days after Katrina made landfall, the head of FEMA, Michael Brown, did not even know that thousands of people were taking refuge in the New Orleans Convention Center.
What went wrong at FEMA? The answer, it turns out, is that the Bush Administration had applied its conservative philosophy to the agency, and destroyed its ability to act as an effective organization. The Republicans’ record on FEMA included:
• Incompetent Appointees: When he came into office, President Bush first appointed Joe Allbaugh as Director of FEMA. Allbaugh’s qualifications? He had no emergency relief experience, but he was Bush’s campaign chairman! In 2003, Allbaugh was replaced by Michael Brown, a longtime friend of Allbaugh who also had no emergency relief experience, but was a big time Republican donor and had previously run the International Arabian Horse Association.
• Privatization: In April 2001, Bush’s budget director, Mitch Daniels, announced the goal of privatizing much of FEMA’s work. As just one example, in June 2004, FEMA turned the task of developing a hurricane disaster plan for New Orleans over to a private consulting firm named Innovative Emergency Management. In light of the response to Katrina, it appears that it they did come up with a plan it was not innovative and did not involve any management.
• Budgetary Cutbacks: In 2003, FEMA was made part of the Department of Homeland Security. At the same time, its budget was cut and 500 of its staffers were laid off. In addition, three quarters of the funds that the agency spent on local emergency preparedness and first-responders was shifted to terrorism response rather than natural disasters and accidents.
By contrast, under President Clinton, FEMA was headed by James Lee Witt, the first FEMA director with emergency planning experience, who turned FEMA into a highly effective agency that successfully handled a number of major disasters. For example, FEMA advance teams were on the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 within five hours and three minutes. Similarly, President Obama’s FEMA is run by W. Craig Fugate, who spent eight years as the Director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management and previously worked as emergency manager for Alachua County, Florida for over a decade.
It is impossible, of course, to know exactly how different the rescue efforts would have been had FEMA not been decimated by conservative idealogues in the years leading up to Katrina. There can be no reasonable dispute, however, that more people would have been rescued more quickly, food, water and medical care would have gotten to the scene sooner, and that untold suffering would have been alleviated. Conservative philosophy failed the people of New Orleans and Mississippi five years ago this week – let’s not give conservatives the chance to do that again this November.
Are you as outraged about FEMA’s failures during Hurricane Katrina as I am? If so, write a letter to your local newspaper to help remind people the important role that government can play in society and why the Republican’s blind opposition to government serving the interest of average Americans is wrong for our great country.
USA Today Editorial on FEMA’s Failures During Hurricane Katrina
PBS Report on Hurricane Katrina and its Aftermath