Thursday, October 06, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (10/06/05)


A tale of two cities. Anguished residents watched as water relentlessly rushed through breached levees, poured into city streets and began to rise, inundating whole neighborhoods. Those who had not evacuated perched on rooftops holding makeshift signs to attract rescuers in helicopters. Fires broke out, sparked by broken electrical wires and fueled by ruptured gas lines. Thousands of residents crowded into shelters.

New Orleans in August of 2005? No, Grand Forks, North Dakota, in April of 1997. The Red River of the North, which forms much of the boundary between North Dakota and Minnesota, became choked with melting snow. One of the few U.S. rivers that flow north, it was so named to distinguish it from the tributary of the Mississippi, which rises in the Texas Panhandle.

An error in the hydrological model created by the National Weather Service (NWS) based on the height reached in a 1979 flood combined with freakish weather to cause the near destruction of Grand Forks, Nebraska, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, its twin across the river. The NWS had foreseen a height of 49 feet; the river crested at 54 feet and forced the largest evacuation of an American city since Atlanta in the Civil War. At its widest extent, water covered everything up to two miles from the river. Angry with the faulty NWS prediction, one citizen spray-painted a message on the side of his flooded house, "49 feet my ass."

What a difference eight years--and a different FEMA--can make. Even before the flood struck, FEMA officials had been in Grand Forks months before the disaster, advising residents to take out insurance under the National Flood Insurance Program. During the flood, in the words of one writer, the FEMA staff performed, "like a well-oiled machine," not only in Grand Forks but in the entire Red River Valley. Moving in the moment the NWS warned residents to expect more water than the levees could hold, they brought with them a state-of-the-art headquarters trailer, dubbed "Red October." One of FEMA's mobile command centers, it contained a dozen computers linked to the Internet, a satellite communications system, a radio system, and 48 phone lines, including dedicated lines to the White House and the Pentagon.

On the very day the river reached its crest, President Bill Clinton arrived in Grand Forks, bringing with him the director of FEMA, the Secretaries of Agriculture, Army, Health and Humans Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation and the head of the Small Business Administration. At the Grand Forks Air Force base they met with the governors of North Dakota and Minnesota, the states' congressional delegation, and the mayors of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Before leaving the White House, Clinton directed FEMA to raise federal aid to 100 percent instead of the usual 75 percent. Impressed with the massed expertise, Patricia Owens, Mayor of Grand Forks, tearfully told Bill Clinton, "You bring us hope." Remarkably, when the water receded and casualties were totaled, not a single life had been lost in the flood. Grand Forks has been largely rebuilt. Acting on the advice of the Army Corps of Engineers, he flood plains have been returned to the river.

Since its creation in 1979 by the Carter administration, FEMA had been a political dumping ground for political hacks. Its first director, John Macy, was a longtime civil servant with experience in defense. Next came a close friend of Edwin Meese, later Reagan's attorney general, Louis O. Giuffrida, who resigned amid allegations of misconduct. Julius W. Becton, a retired Air Force lieutenant general, replaced him. On the heels of Hurricane Hugo in 1989, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina called FEMA "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever worked with." President George H,W. Bush appointed Wallace E. Stickney, a protege of White House chief of staff John H. Sununu, in 1990.

A 1992 House Appropriations Committee report described Stickney as "a weak, uninterested executive who has little interest in the agency's programs." The report called the agency "a political dumping ground, a 'turkey farm.'" It said that FEMA was "filled with inexperienced appointees who mismanaged the agency, misled Congress, and funneled consulting contracts to their friends."

Confronted with this shabby history, Bill Clinton selected in 1993 someone from Arkansas he could rely upon. As Governor, he had put James Lee Witt in charge of reorganizing the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. People in Washington assumed that since Witt came from Arkansas and they had never heard of him, he must be another hack. He weeded out most of the incompetents and honing the agency to a fine edge. Recognizing its importance, Clinton raised the agency to cabinet status.

A 1996 editorial in the Atlanta Constitution noted that Witt was the first director of the agency to have emergency-management experience and praised him for stopping the staffing of the agency by political patronage. "He removed layers of bureaucracy. Most important, he instilled in the agency a spirit of preparedness, of service to the customer, of willingness to listen to ideas of local and state officials to make the system work better."

Witt's firm hand and contagious management philosophy succeeded. A year after the flood, a Grand Forks police lieutenant who had lost his home described his own experience: "The main thing I got from dealing with FEMA was the courtesy, the compassion they showed. It was truly unbelievable and helpful for us and my family and the town."

Contrast this record with the Administration's feeble performance in Hurricane Katrina: A floundering FEMA director praised on TV by President Bush for "doing a heck of a job" when millions of TV watchers could see otherwise. Or President Bush's insensitive joking on the first of seven photo-op visits to a desolated New Orleans about the boozy times in the French Quarter when he had "sometimes too much fun."

Yet, in 2000, George W. Bush had nothing but praise for James Lee Witt. During the first presidential debate with Al Gore, he described the fires and floods that had swept Texas and said, "I have to pay the [Clinton] administration a compliment. James Lee Witt of FEMA has done a really good job of working with governors during times of crisis." Bush would have been wiser to keep him instead of that other Clinton holdover, CIA director George Tenant. But in 2001, Bush returned FEMA to the cronies and hacks, first Joe Allbaugh, his campaign manager, who left to become a lobbyist for Halliburton, and then to clueless Michael Brown, he of the inflated resumé.

Today FEMA, of crucial importance in any emergency, is only a tiny cog in the unwieldy huge machine called the Department of Homeland Security. Why should the competence of the head of FEMA be a concern in this corner of Westchester, historically so tranquil and devoid of natural disasters? What's the worst that could happen? Let me count the ways: First, our two aging atomic energy plants, inviting targets for terrorists. They are also nearing the end of their useful lives and increasingly prone to leaks and shutdowns. Add an unreliable siren system plus a flawed, untested evacuation plan, best described as another stalled Houston highway exodus waiting to happen. Need I say more?


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