A Book Review and Critique of
DEADLY INDIFFERENCE-The Perfect (Political) Storm-Hurricane Katrina, the Bush White House and Beyond (219 pp)
By Michael D. Brown and Ted Schwarz
Published by Taylor Trade Publishing (2011)
ISBN 978-1-58979-485-6 (cloth)
ISBN 978-1-58979-486-3 (electronic)
An interesting selection of title by former Under Secretary for Emergency Preparedness and Response of the Department of Homeland Security Michael D. Brown. Mr. Brown also served as the General Counsel of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Deputy Director of FEMA before its statutory abolition by the Homeland Security Act of 2002 effective for that purpose on March 1, 2003, when Mr. Brown became Under Secretary. In those positions Mr. Brown served as a Presidential appointee of President George W. Bush.
The book serves as documentation in part and apologia in part for the learning curve experienced by Mr. Brown ending shortly after the landfall of Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005.
Disclosure: I worked at FEMA from September 10, 1979 until October 1, 1999. From April 1, 1979 until September 10, 1979 I ran FEMA’s litigation under IAA between FEMA and HUD. I never worked for Mr. Brown.
Even now Mr. Brown is somewhat ambivalent about both his role and those he served during his time in office. He does give substantial evidence that he was at least as qualified as some other FEMA General Counsels, Deputy Directors, and Under Secretaries in DHS. Personally I believe he was qualified to lead FEMA during his time in office. Many would disagree with that conclusion but my standards may be different because I have seen so many totally incompetent and some corrupt political appointees during over 30 years of federal service. The problem of course is that high level federal jobs are not easy jobs and the learning curve for all is very steep. Leadership of the nation’s premier organization to response and recovery from disasters given its statutory and other parameters is one of the toughest. Thus, even those with the best of preparation, intention, high intellect and motivation may well fail and often have. I have posted notes on each FEMA Director on my blog at Vacation Lane Blog and that process is not yet complete.
The first failure of Mr. Brown was his lack of understanding of the aphorism “Beware the Trust of Princes” because ultimately it was those above Mr. Brown not below that undercut his potential success during Hurricane Katrina. Second, was his failure to understand the USACOE (Corps of Engineers) and its long history in the NOLA area and the problems it solved and created.
Mr. Brown should have been expert on NOLA because of what some may find unusual. FEMA had with the cooperation of the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed suit against two Parishes in the NOLA area in 1981. It had referred NOLA (when NOLA referred to it means Orleans Parish) itself to DOJ at the same time. DOJ declined to file suit against NOLA when USACOE argued successfully that its operations in the New Orleans District would not bear scrutiny and becoming entangled in a civil lawsuit where extensive disclosure and discovery of its problems would not help its long term efforts in that area. I would argue that USACOE which is largely a contractor led operation with a very thin military and civilian overlay was actually corrupt as was the City of New Orleans government generally, as well as various Levee Districts, and the State of Louisiana itself.
The bottom line on that lawsuit was a formal consent order susceptible to long term enforcement and oversight and some monetary recovery as well as informal accounting to the defendants by me that in meeting over 40 opposing lawyers with a single DOJ attorney now deceased I warned that unless the defendants and NOLA area generally treated their flood hazards with the almost military precision of the Dutch they would be under water. That is pretty much what happened. One specific suggestion we made public was that all pumping stations in the NOLA area have their electric standby generators fueled and operated on the roof tops of the building housing them. As do the Dutch which are the source of most of the large pumps in the NOLA area.
But of course I am also sure that few if any in FEMA OGC understood that past effort when Mr. Brown arrived as General Counsel in spring 2001. Nor has FEMA had an active subrogation effort with large cases since I left as the Associate General Counsel for Litigation in 1986. That transfer of position by me was to assist in making sure that the National Security portfolio of FEMA and its REPP (Radiological Emergency Preparedness Program) did not end FEMA’s existence as an independent agency.
So first of all I would argue that given FEMA’s history substantive knowledge of NOLA and Louisiana in FEMA’s programs was something that Mr. Brown should have known cold. It is certainly true that one of the most knowledgeable Congressional delegations about FEMA was that from Louisiana and the NFIP might have been the key federal program for those who have property protected by insurance in all of Louisiana. And ultimately FEMA lives and dies politically by its Gulf of Mexico coastal states. In fact it largely acts as a special subsidy to those states for their negligence in locating properties in hazardous areas and allowing improper and inappropriate construction.
Second, Mr. Brown probably should have left when Joseph Allbaugh departed from the government when he realized he would no longer be what is called a direct report to the President. No FEMA Director without a personal history with the current President has been a total success in their job. This has been documented overtime even in academic analysis. Mr. Brown had no personal history with the President.
Third, FEMA had attrited in both staff and funding during the years from 2001 to 2005 with its Deputy former Admiral Harvey Johnson testifying under oath that one day before Katrina made landfall FEMA had less than 1500 permanent full time staff on board.
Under it prior peak staffing it had close to 3700 permanent full time staff and today has almost 5000. It also has a large cadre of temporary employees under various labels. The largest being called DAEs (Disaster Assistance Employees).
Mr. Brown lays out his relations with two DHS Secretaries, first Tom Ridge (former Governor of Pennsylvania) and then Michael Chertoff. Both are intelligent men with very different backgrounds. Secretary Chertoff had a brilliant history in the criminal justice system before his time at DHS. Unfortunately, the skills of Ridge and Chertoff were not those needed for handling large scale catastrophic events, nor were Mr. Brown. And certainly the President himself was not up to a domestic crisis the size and scope of Hurricane Katrina. In President Bush’s home state of TEXAS the National Guard and the USACOE handle most of the disaster work and has quite a weak EM (emergency management) regime. That regime is what former Governor Bush and Joseph Allbaugh were used to from their time in TEXAS. During his father’s administration when FEMA suffered through Hurricane Hugo (1989) and the Loma Prieta Earthquake (1989) and Hurricane Andrew (1982) FEMA’s performance was always somewhat questionable. And in fact Bush’s Vice President hated FEMA and had encouraged its abolition that could well have occurred if George H.W. Bush had won the fall 1992 election. And it should be noted that 95% of all nation-states use their military for disaster response and recovery. This of course is largely to ensure that existing power structures are maintained including political leadership. And these issues impact a civilian FEMA as documented in DEADLY INDIFFERENCE.
I hope that Mr. Brown had read the NAPA study published in February 1993 entitled “Coping with Catastrophe” because it nailed many of the issues addressed by Mr. Brown in his book. I have long recommended that a copy be given to each new FEMA employee whether full time or temporary followed by Q&A sessions on its contents and recommendations.
It must always be remembered that federal programs are political solutions to perceived or actual problems and are not conceived with efficiency and effectiveness as their primary object. FEMA is no exception in this regards.
So finally what Mr. Brown faced is in some cases generations of neglect or waste, fraud, and abuse in federal programs operated on the coast of the GOM but also in the STATES and their local governments. Even now the Louisiana delegation tries to get FEMA to make up for the failures of government in the NOLA area and other parts of the state.
And Mr. Brown apparently in his entire time in FEMA did nothing to resolve officially whether FEMA is just a cooperative and collaborative agency that hands out money and information to all or the federal systems ultimate “safety net” that must do it all when all others fail.
My bottom line is that this book should be read by all and all should draw their own conclusions.