Mikulski Battens the Hatches

September 07, 1992

Hurricane Andrew killed more than 50 people, flattened tens of thousands of homes and scarred great swathes of South Florida and the Bayou Country. But Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is determined it won't topple her.

Faster than one could tack plywood over windows, Senator Mikulski was hastily erecting a barrier of rhetoric around herself to blunt criticism over her role with the federal agency charged with responding to natural disasters.

As head of the Senate appropriations subcommittee funding the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the senator could be vulnerable to criticism for the agency's confused response. So she called a press conference to unleash a blistering attack on FEMA. She demanded an "unprecedented" five-part investigation of the agency by the General Accounting Office.

Where was Barbara before Andrew?

Senator Mikulski said she previously had asked FEMA to "consider" redefining itself as a "first responder" agency and had gotten a response that the agency had "learned its lessons" following Hurricane Hugo's ravaging of Carolina low country in 1989. Senator Mikulski pointed out that a previous GAO investigation she requested determined in March 1991 that FEMA hadn't responded well to Hurricane Hugo or to the San Francisco earthquake in the fall of 1989. Now, it's nearly autumn 1992 and nothing's changed, including the fact that Senator Mikulski is calling for, surprise, another investigation.

Locked in a battle for re-election with feisty Republican challenger Alan Keyes, Senator Mikulski says she's been out front on the FEMA problems. If she has, she's been uncharacteristically discreet about it. An electronic search of the Congressional Record doesn't show a single criticism of FEMA by the senator from Highlandtown.

The hurricane has been a historic disaster. The heart of this nation goes out to the residents of the stricken region and the federal government has few greater responsibilities then to help remedy the pain and loss. But the senator's huffing and puffing at FEMA seems inconsequential at this juncture, especially judging from the effectiveness of past inquiries at her behest.

Her supporters might cheer "run, Barbara, run," but this is a classic case of Senator Mikulski doing a "cut and run."

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