Friday, May 26, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities


As Charles Dickens put it, verily it was the worst of times. Anguished residents watched as water relentlessly poured through breached levees, rushed down city streets and began to rise, inundating entire neighborhoods. Those who had not evacuated perched precariously on rooftops and held 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 and the consequences of Hurricane Katrina in 2005? No, Grand Forks, North Dakota, reeling from a spring thaw in 1997. A comparison of the experience of these two cities is illuminating. It shows what can happen to a well-run federal department, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), when it has been turned into a dumping ground for political cronies and incompetents.

In April of 1997, the Red River of the North, which forms a long stretch 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 Red River, the tributary of the Mississippi that 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 compounded by unusually freakish weather to cause the near destruction of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, its twin across the river. The weather service 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--made. Early in 1997, months before disaster struck, FEMA officials had been in Grand Forks advising residents to take out insurance under the National Flood Insurance Program. And during the flood, the FEMA staff performed in the words of one writer, "like a well-oiled machine," not only in Grand Forks but in the entire Red River Valley. Moving in en masse the moment the NWS warned residents to expect more water than the levees could hold, FEMA employees 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 Human 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 two states' congressional delegation, and the mayors of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Before leaving the White House, Clinton had directed FEMA to raise federal aid to the 100 percent level, instead of the usual 75 percent. Impressed with the so much mobilized expertise, Grand Forks Mayor Patricia Owens, tearfully told Bill Clinton, "You bring us hope." Remarkably, when the water receded and casualty statistics were totaled, not a single life had been lost in the flood. Grand Forks has now been largely rebuilt. Acting on the advice of the Army Corps of Engineers, the vulnerable flood plains have been returned to the river.

Since its creation in 1979 by the Carter administration, FEMA had been a dumping ground for political hacks. Its first director, John Macy, was a longtime civil servant with experience in defense. Next came Louis O. Giuffrida, a close friend of Edwin Meese, later Reagan's attorney general. Mr. Giuffrida 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, with characteristic frankness, 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 charged that FEMA was "filled with inexperienced appointees who mismanaged the agency, misled Congress, and funneled consulting contracts to their friends."

Confronted in 1993 with this shabby history, Bill Clinton selected someone he could rely upon. As Governor of Arkansas, 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. Cool-headed James Lee Witt surprised everyone by systematically weeding out most of the incompetents and honing the agency to a fine edge. Recognizing the agency's crucial importance, Clinton raised it 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. The newspaper said, "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 performance in Hurricane Katrina, a feeble effort that bordered on criminal negligence: The floundering FEMA director praised on TV by President Bush for "doing a heck of a job"--an empty compliment considering that millions of TV watchers were aware of the totally ineffective federal relief efforts. On the first of his seven photo-op visits to a desolated New Orleans, an insensitive George W. Bush joked about boozing in the French Quarter when he had "sometimes too much fun."

In 2000, candidate 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 another Clinton holdover, CIA director George "Slam Dunk" Tenet. On taking office in 2001, President Bush returned FEMA to the cronies and hacks, placing at its head Joe Allbaugh, a Bush campaign manager. After Allbaugh left to become a lobbyist for Halliburton, he nominated Allbaugh's deputy, clueless Michael Brown, he of the Arabian Horse Association and the inflated resumé.

Today FEMA is still critically important in emergencies. But it remains only a small cog in the huge, unwieldy bureaucratic machine cobbled together by the Bush administration as the Department of Homeland Security. Hasty patchwork repairs were made to the poorly designed levee system protecting New Orleans by the U.S. Army's Corps of Engineers. Another hurricane season is now bearing down on the recovering Gulf Coast. It will be interesting to see how well the still-battered region fares.

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