Goodbye, 'Brownie'

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

NO ONE WILL be sorry or surprised to learn that Michael D. Brown, formerly the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, intends to spend more time with his family. Mr. Brown will be forever remembered as the man who, at the height of the New Orleans evacuation crisis, appeared not to know that 25,000 people were crammed into the city's convention center without food, water or toilets, despite television reports broadcasting that fact for the previous 24 hours. Since then, his qualifications -- which mostly consist of a long stint running horse shows, as well as a useful friendship with a friend of the president -- have sparked a good deal of righteous indignation. But Mr. Brown's parting words are worth heeding. "The focus," he said yesterday, "has got to be on FEMA."

We agree -- although we would add that the focus should be on presidential attention to FEMA, as well as congressional oversight and funding of FEMA, and not on FEMA's position in the federal bureaucracy. Last week, a gaggle of mostly Democratic lawmakers proposed bills that would, among other things, move FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security, making it once again a separate agency, and give it Cabinet-level status. Yet most of the bad decisions made about FEMA over the past several years -- budget cuts, the plan to take away its preparedness function, as well as the decision to staff it with presidential cronies instead of experts -- could have occurred even if FEMA had remained in the Cabinet: After all, presidents have been known to ignore their Cabinet members, too.

By the same token, some of those decisions could have been prevented, even with FEMA buried deep in the bowels of DHS, had anyone in the White House or Congress taken the agency's agenda more seriously. As we wrote yesterday, Mr. Brown received only a 42-minute Senate confirmation hearing when he was nominated to be deputy director of FEMA, and no hearing at all when he became its boss. The White House, preoccupied with al Qaeda, and former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, preoccupied with airline security, were clearly unperturbed by the threats posed by hurricanes and floods.

Without question, there is an overlap between preparations for a terrorist attack and preparations for a natural disaster. There are also good reasons why people who know about public health, people who organize emergency logistics, people who understand the effects of radiation, and people who can coordinate first responders and the National Guard should run into one another in office corridors. What matters is not where those corridors are but the quality of the people themselves. Congress and the administration should now focus hard on R. David Paulison, head of FEMA's emergency preparedness force, who has been nominated to replace Mr. Brown. A former Miami-Dade County fire chief who helped Florida cope with Hurricane Andrew, Mr. Paulison may be qualified. But before coming to that conclusion, it would help if Congress and the White House take a bit more than 42 minutes to find out.


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