A reader of last week’s column ("Katrina Disaster? Just Blame Bush") writes to ask: "How can even a liberal idiot like you blame President Bush for the damage a hurricane causes?" Perhaps this individual did not read the column itself, just the title - for he made no effort to rebut the arguments made outlining Bush’s responsibility for the magnitude of the catastrophe. Since this reader’s inquiry could best be described a "rhetorical question," let’s reframe it a bit before attempting an answer.
So: "To what extent, if any, does George W. Bush bear responsibility for the Katrina disaster?"
Putting aside the issues addressed last week, let’s take a look at the organization this country turns to for massive relief efforts - the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
From the Washington Post (9/3/05): "FEMA took a battering for its sluggish response to Hurricanes Andrew and Hugo." (Both these hurricanes occurred under the watch of Mr. Bush’s father.) "After President Clinton took office in 1993 he revamped the agency, placing James Lee Witt, the former Arkansas emergency service chief, in charge. The agency later won praise for its vigorous reaction to Midwest floods and the 1994 Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles."
Upon taking office in 2001, George W. Bush promptly replaced Mr. Witt with Joe Allbaugh. Allbaugh’s background for the position? He served as Bush’s chief of staff when Bush was governor of Texas, and then as Bush’s campaign manager during the 2000 presidential election. Allbaugh’s primary accomplishments at FEMA were to oversee Mr. Bush’s goals of cutting the size and authority of the agency.
Allbaugh resigned from FEMA in 2002 and set up a business called New Bridge Strategies in 2003 - a company designed to "take advantage of business opportunities in the Middle East following the conclusion of the U.S.-led war in Iraq…The opportunities evolving in Iraq today are of such an unprecedented nature and scope that no other existing firm has the necessary skills and experience to be effective both in Washington, D.C. and on the ground in Iraq." This description - from the corporate web site - stops just short of screaming "Sweetheart Deals!" and "White House connections!"
Upon Allbaugh’s departure, Mr. Bush simply promoted the deputy director - Michael Brown - to head the agency. And what was Mr. Brown’s background for the position? Prior to joining FEMA, Brown served as "Judges and Stewards Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association." He was compelled to resign, in the midst of some shady dealings, and was quickly hired by Joe Allbaugh (at one time, the men were college roommates) as General Counsel, then deputy director, of FEMA.
Katrina is not the first hurricane to ensnarl Brown in controversy. Brown was accused of gross mismanagement for his handling of the Hurricane Frances aftermath in 2004, disbursing millions of dollars in fraudulent claims. Summarized by an editorial in the St. Petersburg Times on 1/4/05: "In Miami-Dade County, for example, more than 10,000 residents have been paid more than $29-million for damage suffered by Hurricane Frances, when that storm landed 100 miles north of the county…In Mobile County, Alabama, FEMA approved $29-million in claims last year for flooding, despite being told by the county’s emergency management director that the county had suffered no damage."
As for Katrina, there is not enough space here to catalog Mr. Brown’s poor management skills. ("It’s obvious," says a New York Times editorial, "that Michael Brown has met the expectations of those who warned that he would be a terrible director of FEMA.") It is, however, worth highlighting one example. As reported by the Salt Lake Tribune (9/6/05): "As New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded on national television for firefighters - his own are exhausted after working around the clock for a week - a battalion of highly trained men and women sat idly in a muggy Sheraton Hotel conference room in Atlanta. Many of the firefighters, assembled from Utah and throughout the U.S. by FEMA, thought they were going to be deployed as emergency workers. Instead, they have learned they are going to be community-relations officers for FEMA, shuffled throughout the Gulf Coast region to disseminate fliers… A team of 50…was ushered onto a flight headed for Louisiana. The crew’s first assignment: to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas."
Take a moment to let that image sink in: Trained rescue personnel, handing out fliers and acting as scenery for presidential photo-ops, while people are still dying in the storm’s aftermath. Indescribably poor management from Mr. Brown. Callous indifference to human suffering from Mr. Bush. (Such callousness is common in the Bush family. Here’s First Mom Barbara Bush, commenting on the New Orleans evacuees basking in the luxury of the overcrowded Houston Astrodome: "So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." Yet another "let them eat cake" moment from Bush & Co.)
Mr. Bush bears responsibility for his successful efforts at gutting FEMA’s response capabilities, as well as for staffing the agency with unqualified political hacks. The result, of course, is a critical government operation utterly unable to meet the needs of our citizens during times of crisis - undermining the express intent of the agency.
To revisit the reader’s inquiry, the legitimate question should actually be: How can even a right-wing extremist not blame George W. Bush, when he is willing to let people die while he struts for the media’s cameras?