This week, many made comparisons between the federal response to Superstorm Sandy, and that of the Bush administration in 2005 after the levee failure following Hurricane Katrina. None was more stunning than that of former FEMA chief Michael Brown. So stunning, that I thought it deserved an open letter.
It’s me, Melissa.
You don’t mind if I call you “Brownie,” do you? So I hear you have a few words for President Obama about his response to Hurricane Sandy? You actually said,
“One thing he’s gonna be asked is, why did he jump on [the hurricane] so quickly and go back to D.C. so quick?”
Um, no. No one is going to ask why the President of the United States responded quickly to an unprecedented weather event threatening millions. Why? Because while it is bad manners to show up early for a dinner party, it is a really great idea to show up early to disaster response.
I’m a little taken aback that you don’t already know this. After you and your boss Dubya fumbled the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, your failures became the impetus for a 218-page report. The report reads,
“FEMA’s efforts to support state emergency management and to prepare for federal response and recovery in natural disasters were insufficient for an event of Hurricane Katrina’s magnitude.”
Your agency was described as “…overwhelmed the first week after landfall.” Maybe FEMA was “overwhelmed” because you, the director, were given full authority to respond to Katrina on August 27, and didn’t request Homeland Security workers four hours after Katrina hit on the 29th. Maybe it was your decision to only send 100 buses to Louisiana after the National Guard requested 700 for evacuations. Or maybe it’s because in the midst of a crisis, you were busy sending cute emails to staff about your clothing choices and joking, “I’m trapped now, please rescue me,” as New Orleanians were still trapped without food or water.
Remember when two days after Katrina hit, a FEMA employee told you, “the situation is past critical” and listed problems including many people near death and food and water running out at the Superdome. Your entire response was: “Thanks for update. Anything specific I need to do or tweak?”
But it’s not all your fault. You never should have been in that role. After all you had no experience or qualification, having been a lawyer for the International Arabian Horse Association. Which, is perhaps why President Obama, unlike your boss, chose an experienced disaster manager to head FEMA.
Craig Fugate was director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. He managed 138 full-time staff and a budget of $745 million. His experience? In 2004, Fugate managed the largest federal disaster response in Florida history as hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne all pummeled the state in quick succession. And, oh yeah, he was even a volunteer firefighter and paramedic.
So you see, Brownie, president Obama didn’t begin preparing for Sandy on Sunday. He started in 2009! When he appointed a qualified, responsive leader to manage FEMA.
Jarvis DeBerry, writing for my hometown [New Orleans Times-Picayune], asked this pointed question when it comes to your expertise on disaster management:
If a reporter comes calling with a request for comment, why would you even answer the phone?
But I thank you for your intervention into public discourse because it is a reminder of the stark and important choices we are facing in this election. Pick another Bush who’ll put someone like you in charge of our national vulnerability or re-elect President Obama whose idea of a qualified leader is Craig Fugate. In one of your famous “Katrina emails” in 2005 you asked, “Can I quit now?”
The answer is yes. Yes, please. Quit now.