We speak with Judd Legum from the Center of American Progress about FEMA’s role in handling the catastrophe in the wake of hurricane Katrina. [includes rush transcript]
As the fallout from Hurricane Katrina continues, more is being revealed about FEMA’s role in handling the catastrophe and the qualifications of the people in charge of the agency. Michael Brown heads FEMA and his official title is Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Emergency Preparedness and Response. President Bush merged the agency with the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. In the days after Katrina hit, Brown came under fierce criticism for his seemingly clueless and insensitive statements about the disaster that was unfolding in New Orleans. Last Thursday night, as ten of thousands of people waited in squalid conditions inside the New Orleans Convention Center desperate for food, water, and security, Brown told Paula Zahn’s CNN that he was unaware of the conditions even though TV images had shown the plight of the people all day. Brown then appeared to lay blame on the victims of the hurricane when he responded to a question about the probable high death toll saying, “Unfortunately, that’s going to be attributable a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings.”
And yesterday, newly leaked memos showed that FEMA waited five hours after Hurricane Katrina had struck New Orleans before requesting help to be dispatched to the region. Even then Brown said that the 1,000 Homeland Security employees could take two days to show up at the disaster scene. Brown’s memo to Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff politely ended, “Thank you for your consideration in helping us to meet our responsibilities.” According to the Associated Press, Brown’s memo lacked any urgent language besides describing the hurricane as a “near catastrophic event.” Brown’s memo also said that employees would be expected to “convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials, community organizations and the general public.” Yesterday, Brown held a press conference and was asked to respond to calls for his resignation. Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has called for you resignation. I’m wondering if you have a response to that
- Micheael Brown, “The President’s in charge of that, not me…I serve totally at the will of the President of the United States.”
The Bush administration has staunchly defended Michael Brown. Last week, while admiting the federal response was not acceptable, Bush lauded Brown saying “Brownie, you”re doing a heck of a job.” Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan became defensive when asked by reporters if Bush had continued confidence in Michael Brown and FEMA. In these past few days, information has come calling into question the qualifications of Brown and two of his top deputies. It turns out that none of them had virtually any real experience in emergency management before they joined FEMA.
- Judd Legum, Research Director at the Center for American Progress and co-editor of the Progress Report.
AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, Brown held a news conference and was asked to respond to calls for his resignation.
REPORTER 1: Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, has called for your resignation, and I’m wondering if you have a response to that?
MICHAEL BROWN: The President’s in charge of that, not me.
REPORTER 2: Have you ever offered your resignation?
MICHAEL BROWN: Pardon?
REPORTER 2: Did you offer your resignation at any time?
MICHAEL BROWN: I serve totally at the will of the President of the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: The Bush administration has staunchly defended Michael Brown. Last week while admitting the federal response was not acceptable, Bush lauded Brown, saying, quote, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan became defensive when asked by reporters if Bush had continued confidence in Michael Brown and FEMA.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: This is an attempt by some in this room to engage in finger pointing and blame game, and I’m just not going to do that. I have made it very clear — I have made it very clear, and the President spoke about him last week. And his comments stand in terms of what he said about the great work that they have been doing around the clock, 24 hours a day, to help people on the ground.
AMY GOODMAN: White House Press Secretary, Scott McClellan. In these past few days, information has come calling into question the qualifications of Brown and two of his top deputies. It turns out that none of them had any real experience in emergency management before they joined FEMA. We continue this discussion with Judd Legum of the Center for American Progress. He joins us in Washington, D.C. Welcome, Judd.
JUDD LEGUM: Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t you go through the list, the list of the top men at the head of FEMA?
JUDD LEGUM: Well, right at the top you have Michael Brown, and as you mentioned, just a while ago, he was the Commissioner of Judges at the International Arabian Horse Association. To give you an idea of what he did there, he spent a year investigating whether a breeder performed liposuction on a horse’s rear end. So, I think that clearly that 11 years he spent there probably didn’t serve him too well when he transferred over to FEMA.
AMY GOODMAN: Was he fired from his job as heading up the International Arabian Horse Association?
JUDD LEGUM: Well, he was asked to resign, and I think that he was asked to resign, then he offered his resignation. So, whether that’s firing or not I guess no one will ever know, but it was a result of a lot of litigation that stemmed from his oversight of the association. And that’s essentially what caused him to have to step down.
AMY GOODMAN: Judd, how did he end up as head of FEMA?
JUDD LEGUM: Well, as far as I can tell, his primary qualification seems to be that he was the college roommate of Joe Allbaugh, who was the outgoing FEMA director, because prior to that, besides a short stint in a very small suburb of Oklahoma in the 1970s involved with emergency management, he really has no experience. Besides being a member of this horse association or the Commissioner of Judges of this horse association, he was an estate planning lawyer, a tax lawyer. So, it seems to me that he knew the guy who was leaving, and that’s pretty much how he got the job.
AMY GOODMAN: And the number two and three men in the agency in FEMA that’s supposedly in charge of dealing with this disaster?
JUDD LEGUM: Well, the number two at FEMA, he was actually head of advance for the Bush-Cheney campaign. So, essentially what he was charge of is planning events. And what’s interesting is the FEMA response actually reflects his experience. Because what happened when there were — you know, when Mike Brown made the request and said finally, you know, we need a thousand members from the Department of Homeland Security to come down and help out, they were really, you know — they were charged with, you know, representing and putting a good face on the relief efforts. And that was explicitly what Mike Brown asked for.
And then when these firefighters volunteered from all around the country, they were put — made public relations officers. So I think really the experience of the number two guy there, the chief of staff, and even as you go down the line, the number three really was a media strategist, did work for Maverick Media, which is the company that did campaign ads for the Bush-Cheney campaign. So, if you really look at the operation and how FEMA responded to it, they really responded to it more like a political campaign than a disaster.
AMY GOODMAN: Judd Legum of Center for American Progress, how does this compare to previous administrations, like President Clinton? Are these usually political appointments in FEMA?
JUDD LEGUM: Well, certainly they’re political appointments in the sense that the President has to appoint them, and these people have to be confirmed, but they’re not generally political jobs or people who have primarily political experience. For instance, James Lee Witt, who was the director of FEMA under Clinton, all of his top deputies had served for at least three years in the FEMA regional office. So, all of the people who were in these spots had extensive emergency management experience within FEMA. And, of course, James Lee Witt, who was really widely respected — Republicans, Democrats — for his work during the Clinton administration, he was the Director of Emergency Management for Arkansas. So, there’s a really big contrast between what FEMA was in the 1990s and what it is now, which is really especially at the top spots a political dumping ground.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Judd Legum, who is with the Center for American Progress, speaking to us in Washington.