A scapegoat kicks out

February 12, 2006

Michael D. Brown, the failed FEMA director who took the fall for the federal fiasco with Hurricane Katrina, had plenty of company in his cluelessness.

Testifying Friday before a Senate committee concluding an exhaustive investigation of the disaster, Mr. Brown revealed that he notified top aides to President Bush and indirectly sent word to Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff on Aug. 29 that levees in New Orleans had been breached, at least 12 hours before Mr. Bush - still vacationing in Texas - observed that the flooding city seemed to have "dodged the bullet."

Mr. Brown attributed this disconnect to an administration so obsessed with terrorism that it failed to take seriously the more likely threat of natural disasters. "It's my belief that had there been a report ... that said, `Yes, we've confirmed that a terrorist has blown up the 17th Street Canal levee,' then everybody would have jumped all over that and been trying to do everything they could. But because this was a natural disaster, that has become the stepchild within the Department of Homeland Security."

Self-serving, sure. Mr. Brown said he didn't bother to personally notify Secretary Chertoff about the levee breach because it would have been "a waste of my time." But many of "Brownie's" complaints ring true.

Federal officials knew a hurricane such as Katrina would come along someday; they also knew that 100,000 people couldn't get out of the city on their own and that there was no evacuation plan - even for hospitals. Yet FEMA was packed with political appointees who had little emergency management experience - including Mr. Brown.

The committee also reported that in the year before Katrina, Mr. Brown was presented with two studies showing that his emergency management agency was woefully unprepared to actually manage a major emergency. But he took no action to help FEMA better position itself to deal with a storm that turned out to be nearly the size of Great Britain.

The chaotic result reflects the alarming reality that four years after 9/11 and the creation of a giant bureaucracy, the federal government is still not ready to effectively respond to a catastrophic event. Not exactly an impressive performance for an administration that prides itself on its ability to keep Americans safe.

And hurricane season is only a few months off.

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