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Why FEMA Failed: The Bush Administration and Disaster Relief

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As Republican leaders announced a joint House-Senate inquiry into failures surrounding the response to Hurricane Katrina, we take a look at why FEMA failed with staff writer Farhad Manjoo who writes, “Ideologically opposed to a strong federal role in disaster relief and obsessed with terrorism, the Bush administration let a once-admired agency fall apart.” [includes rush transcript]

In Washington, Republican leaders on Wednesday announced a joint House-Senate inquiry into failures surrounding the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Congressional Democrats were reportedly not involved in putting the joint inquiry together and called instead for an independent probe similar to the 9/11 commission.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said, “An investigation of the Republican administration by a Republican-controlled Congress is like having a pitcher call his own balls and strikes.”

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has requested an additional $51.8 billion in new relief money, with most of the funds directed to FEMA.

This comes as senior House Republican officials said that some lawmakers were pressing the White House to dismiss FEMA director Michael Brown. This according to The New York Times

Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, a senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said he would try to offer an amendment to sever FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security.

  • Farhad Manjoo, a staff writer at His latest piece is titled “”: In it he writes, “Ideologically opposed to a strong federal role in disaster relief and obsessed with terrorism, the Bush administration let a once-admired agency fall apart.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Farhad Manjoo, who wrote a piece in called “Why FEMA Failed.” “Ideologically opposed to a strong federal role in disaster relief and obsessed with terrorism, the Bush administration let a once admired agency fall apart.” Talk about this FEMA and the FEMA under President Clinton, Farhad.

FARHAD MANJOO: Well, I think that your other guest sort of pointed out one of the things, which is that this FEMA is much more political, and that’s how — actually, that’s one of the kind of the defining factors of the failure here. When the Bush administration’s FEMA sort of came in, when they came into office, they were determined to change things from the way the Clinton administration did things. Under the Clinton administration there was a lot more coordination between the federal government and state and local governments in responding to disasters.

I talked to George Haddow, who was one of the deputies in the Clinton administration’s FEMA under James Lee Witt, and you know, he talked about how when they knew that a disaster was coming or when a disaster occurred like the Northridge earthquake in California or the Midwestern floods, all of the kind of the principals who were in charge of disaster relief from the federal government, from the state government, from local government would meet in a room and talk about what should be done, and there weren’t sort of people pointing fingers at each other and blaming each other. That’s very different from what’s happening here.

And it leads to, you know, a complete breakdown in the response and in coordination to the point where federal officials last week had no idea what was going on in New Orleans. I mean, they didn’t learn, even though it was all over TV, they didn’t learn until sometime in the middle of the week that there were people at the Convention Center who had no food and water and were waiting to be evacuated.

So — and this was really sort of — one of the things about the FEMA — about FEMA under the Bush administration is that this kind of breakdown between and coordination with — something by design, because when the Bush administration came in, they were sort of determined to put disaster relief — to make it a state and local response, to pull the federal government much more out of that, and you know, this goes along with their, you know, with the general conservative ideology of, you know, keeping state and local governments much more in charge, and I guess this is where it leads you: the failure we saw last week.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask Judd Legum about Joe Allbaugh, who you were just talking about, the man who was quite close to President Bush, former head of FEMA, who could stand to profit from the catastrophe in the Gulf region. I just want to read you our headline yesterday. “President Bush tapping Allbaugh to head FEMA after he served as Bush’s campaign manager during the 2000 election.” He is Brown’s predecessor. “He headed FEMA until March 2003, just as the U.S. was launching the invasion into Iraq. Then Allbaugh helped form a lobbying firm called New Bridge Strategies in order to help, clients, quote, 'take advantage of business opportunities in the Middle East following the conclusion of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.' Now, New Bridge Strategies was also formed by several top executives from the lobbying firm then known as Barbour Griffith and Rogers. The head of that firm was Haley Barbour, who is now the Mississippi Republican governor. Earlier this year, Joe Allbaugh signed on as a lobbyist for Halliburton subsidiary KBR in order to, quote, 'educate the congressional and executive branch on defense, disaster relief and homeland security issues.' Just last week, the federal government announced Halliburton would be hired to repair the Gulf Coast military bases damaged by Katrina and now the Washington Post is reporting Allbaugh is also helping Louisiana, quote, 'coordinate the private sector response to the storm.'”

JUDD LEGUM: Yes, that’s right. And what’s interesting is that Allbaugh actually beat Michael Brown, the current director of FEMA down to Louisiana. He was there far in advance of when Michael Brown came down, in Louisiana, essentially securing private contracts for his clients. And he recently, although the contract was signed before he started representing Halliburton, secured the agreement of the government to tap into that contract to clean up naval bases in the Louisiana area. So, he’s already paying dividends for Halliburton, certainly, and probably will for a lot of his other clients as this very large disaster relief effort continues.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Judd Legum, who is the research director for the Center for American Progress, co-editor of the Progress Report. Also, Farhad Manjoo is on the line with us, a writer with When we come back, I’d like to ask you both to stay with us. We’re also going to be joined by a reporter from the Florida Sun Sentinel to talk about how disaster relief was distributed, well, just before the highly contentious election of 2004, with Florida being a key battleground state, how that disaster relief aid was distributed in Florida.

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Politicizing Disaster Relief: How FEMA Overcompensated Florida Citizens in the Run-Up to the Presidential Election

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