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American disasters usually have an operatic arc, their movements as rigid and formulaic to television news consumers as a staging of Tosca.

The curtain goes up with warnings and evacuations, advances to impressive pictures of fire or rain, cuts to local officials intoning vapid pieties like "Mother Nature is in charge," proceeds to sports arenas turned into encampments of the poor, climaxes at the worst scenes of municipal wreckage and then eases to a catharsis of high officials making aerial tours, expressing sorrow and promising money -- a

  necessary restoration of the golden mean. (The hunger for the easy narrative at this stage can be ravenous: I was once in a cluster of reporters interviewing then-governor Zell Miller after he had been choppered over some flooded sections of the west side of Savannah after a bad storm. The TV guys kept trying to get Miller to use whiz-bang adjectives and talk about his feelings, but all he would say were vague things like: "Whenever you see a flood like  

this, it's disturbing." Maybe he thought the water would have been higher). Yet in most American catastrophes of the last three decades, there is one final staple, as much a part of the script as the jilted lover or the hotheaded cavalry officer, and that is the unbelievable incompetence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As everyone now knows, FEMA hit its grand aria last week in New Orleans with a display of ineptitude so spectacular that the nation of Bangladesh was moved to offer foreign aid to the United States. Thousands went without drinking water for days, elderly widows were trapped in sweltering attics, gangsters fired rifle shots at ambulances and teenage refugees were raped inside the Superdome while the flooded streets outside turned into something Waterworld bred after mating with Mad Max.

Meanwhile, the federal agency charged with the immediate relief of citizens in peril was seen nowhere except in front of the TV cameras. Even there, the goatfuck was magisterial. Said FEMA director Michael Brown at one point: "I think the other thing that really caught me by surprise was the fact that there were so many people, and I'm not laying blame, [who] either chose not to evacuate or could not evacuate. And as we began to do the evacuations from the Superdome, all of a sudden, literally thousands of other people started showing up in other places, and we were not prepared for that. We were we were surprised by that."

During this performance, Brown's specialists were turning away trucks full of badly needed drinking water donated by Wal-Mart; apparently nobody had authorized them to accept it. In nearby Jefferson Parish, FEMA geniuses likewise prevented the delivery of 1,000 gallons of fuel and then cut the sheriff's emergency communications line for good measure. The sheriff responded by posting armed guards to protect his own radio system -- from FEMA.

Stellar bayou blunders like this have made Brown the public whipping-boy of the agency that failed America so badly last week, and his resume has been gleefully picked over for its Quayle-like vacuity. Political hackdom doesn't come clothed any finer: Brown spent the last ten years as the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association engaged in such high-profile tasks as fining owners for giving cosmetic surgery to their show ponies.

By all appearances, he got his job by way of being the college roommate of the campaign manager for George W. Bush's successful 2000 effort. The lightning rod that is Michael Brown grew so hot that he was even struck by the New York Post, usually a tireless sycophant of the Bush Administration. It branded him "FEMA Fool" and ripped him for sending a memo five hours after the hurricane struck recommending that agency specialists wait two days before going into the destruction zone. A spokesman later explained that Brown wanted to make sure the employees were trained properly. So wait for the emergency to happen, then train the personnel: this is FEMA logic in a nutshell.

But the hapless Brown is only one symptom of the larger problem with one of the federal government's most dysfunctional agencies -- a difficult honor to attain in Washington and one especially dismal since it could be reasonably argued that keeping ordinary people safe in times of crisis comes extremely close to the most basic social contract between citizens and their government. Aid to disaster victims has been a function of the U.S. government since the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, when Congress provided help to a town in New Hampshire leveled by a fire. The New Deal, not surprisingly, spawned a host of agencies dedicated to rescuing victims, rebuilding houses, moving residents and providing financial assistance in the wakes of disasters.

The modern apparatus known as FEMA was formed in 1979 by Jimmy Carter after the botched cleanup of two Florida hurricanes. More than 100 bureaucratic fiefdoms were rolled into one big package, with predictable results. FEMA was hamstrung from the beginning by a process-oriented approach to situations that, by their very nature, demanded speed and flexibility. Specific aid packages, for example, could only be assembled at the request of a state governor or local official, and then requests were routinely delayed because forms were not filled out correctly or signatures were missing. It appeared to many that FEMA officials were more afraid of making a procedural blunder than acting expediently to help people in need.

An aggravating factor was a lack of qualified leadership at the top. The agency has long been known as a second-rate patronage plum for a loyal donor or party gadfly with no emergency management experience (In this sense, Brown comes from a proud heritage). After botching a California earthquake in 1990, one congressman said that FEMA could "screw up a two-car parade." Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., went even further after the agency fled from doing anything useful in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Its chiefs were, he said, "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever known."

By most accounts, things got more shipshape in 1992 when Bill Clinton appointed an Arkansas construction foreman named James Lee Witt to head the agency. Amazingly, Witt was the first person to hold that post who had emergency management experience on the state level. He instituted an aggressive reform of the hidebound agency, shutting down several unused offices and conducting a complete inventory of assets. The end of the Cold War helped, as a large part of FEMA's mandate had been plotting scenarios for a massive Soviet nuclear attack. FEMA took the opportunity to change its posture from reactionary to proactive, getting ahead of governors by thrusting aid on hard-hit areas almost before the disaster was over. Federal search and rescue teams were at the Murrah building in Oklahoma City within 24 hours of the 1995 bombing, for example. And when the tributaries of the Mississippi overflowed their banks in 1993, displaced residents never had to go without drinking water or shelter. Witt has recently been hired as a disaster consultant to the state of Louisiana. He is now trying to do privately what his public successors could not.

The current problems at FEMA can be traced not just to inexperienced leadership at the top, but to the massive organizational change spurred by the Bush Administration in 2002 in response to the September 11th terror attacks. FEMA was rolled into the jambalaya of the Department of Homeland Security. Its mission was diluted into the general goal of fighting Islamic terror and its head forced to go begging to the cabinet secretary each time a catastrophe loomed.

Those with long memories in Washington might have recalled that this was exactly the problem with FEMA in the bad old days of the Cold War -- one small, but vital domestic mission buried in a superagency dedicated to a broad, internationally minded goal. But this is an administration where memory loss is a political operating strategy. The New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Louisiana congressional delegation (among others) have been sounding the alarms for years about the decaying river levees that kept all the waters of Lake Ponchartrain out of the municipal grid. The Army Corpse of Engineers requested $27 million to help shore up the weakened barriers, but the Bush Administration, saddled with the costs of fighting the Iraq war, gave them about a quarter of what they asked and then pleaded ignorance when the waters came rushing in. "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees," said the president -- incredibly -- this week. Sounds like a perfect candidate for the next head of FEMA.



  • "Facing Blame in a Disaster," by Scott Shane, The New York Times, September 7, 2005
  • "FEMA Fool Sat on His Hands," by Douglas Simpson, New York Post, September 7, 2005
  • "Head of FEMA Has an Unlikely Background," by Matt Stearns and Seth Borenstein, Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Sept. 3, 2005
  • "After Failures, Government Officials Play Blame Game," by Scott Shane, The New York Times, September 5, 2005
  • "The FEMA Phoenix," by Daniel Franklin, Washington Monthly, July/August 1995.

Tom Zoellner is the author of a forthcoming book on the diamond industry.