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FEMA Under Scrutiny in Hearings

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Paul C. Light
Professor of Public Service, New York University
Wednesday, September 28, 2005; 1:00 PM

Paul C. Light , professor of Public Service at New York University, was online Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss FEMA and former director Michael Brown 's testimony on the embattled agency's response to Hurricane Katrina.

The transcript follows.

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College Park, Md.: Michael Brown is still on the federal government payroll as a consultant. What exactly does he do as such?

Paul C. Light: Let's start here with a big "I haven't a clue." The fact that Mike Brown is still hanging around suggests some indecisiveness, obviously, in making the transition. First he was sent home to oversee other catastrophes, then told to focus on lessons learned. I doubt that his testimony yesterday had been precleared with the White House, but who knows. Whether you like him or not, he needs to be sent home now.

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San Luis Obispo, Calif.: Prof. Light:

Could you please clarify just what FEMA's responsibility is once the President has declared a disaster? I was under the impression that once the governor of Louisiana had asked Bush to declare a disaster and Bush had, the federal government assumed major responsibility for handling disaster preparation and relief. Yet, yesterday Brown said that FEMA's role was merely to provide help to the state efforts and FEMA didn't have the resources to do more. Your take? Thanks for doing this chat.

Paul C. Light: FEMA needs to do more than "coordinate." It also needs to respond. It is not a first-responder per se--that task goes to state and local police, fire, charitable organizations, emergency personnel. But it also needs to be able to move supplies quickly into play and elevate decisions to the right level of government. This is particularly important given the reality that significant catastrophes can incapacitate local and state governments. FEMA is very much a fail-safe when local and state governments cannot act. FEMA has extraordinary authorities dating back to the Cold War to engage the entire federal establishment, including the military, in quick response. The question is when to hit the "button" to use those authorities and bring the president and senior leadership of government to the table. I think FEMA waited too long.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: As bad as it sounds, I kind of believe Mr. Brown that it wasn't -all- his fault. The head of FEMA does not have the authority to call up the military or national guard, does he?

Chertoff and Bush are probably more responsible then he is no?

Paul C. Light: As you've heard a thousand times, there's plenty of blame to go around. FEMA has significant authority to raise the alarm. Much as I believe Rep. Tom Davis and the Republican members of his House Government Reform Committee are committed to a fair and unbiased investigation of what went wrong, I suspect that we're going to need some time and distance and independence to reassure Americans that they can trust government at all levels in the next catastrophe. I thought yesterday's hearing was very tough, and the Republicans acquitted themselves well, but there's a great deal of uncertainty among the American public already about what to do in the event of an emergency. Our task ahead is to rebuild FEMA by giving it the resources and leadership to succeed, while also maintaining and/restoring public confidence in their local, state, and federal agencies. There are a lot of unprepared Americans out there who depend on their governments to tell them what to do when catastrophe strikes. Obviously, the citizens of Houston listened to their mayor and governor when the call to evacuate came. But I suspect that many Americans are more confused than ever about how to react.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear Professor Light, Does anyone think Mr. Brown is doing well in the hearings? He is coming across as defensive and ill-informed. Has he not been counseled about his appearance? Thanks.

Paul C. Light: I rather suspect he's freelancing. I can't imagine the White House had any inkling of what he would say yesterday.

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Pa.: My friend had never heard of FEMA until two days ago. Please help me explain to her that she has been living under a rock for the past month.

Paul C. Light: Don't be too tough on her. There are hundreds and hundreds of agencies involve in disaster preparedness and response in this country. You almost need a Ph.D. in acronyms to keep up.

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Vienna: Mr. Light:

One of the fallacies Michael Brown continued to spew yesterday was that the only jurisdiction that had problems was Louisiana, the only one with Democratic leadership. I remember seeing Joe Scarborough (hardly an impartial judge) ranting from Mississippi after Katrina that nothing was going well there, either. Don't we also have evidence that Florida had its problems with FEMA in the past two years?

Paul C. Light: I think FEMA was weakening well before Katrina hit, and don't believe the Homeland Security merger is the cause of all that ails the agency. I've looked at employee surveys from early 2002 and can tell you that FEMA was already suffering by then--many employees said they didn't have the resources to do their jobs; many also said they had very little respect for their new leaders. Luckily, I believe FEMA is a resilient agency. I think it can come back with strong leadership, but will also need some reorganization to restore its edge in disaster response and recovery. Toward that end, I'm very supportive of the proposals that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff sent to Congress last summer to create a new department-wide directorate for preparedness. FEMA would lose its preparedness responsibilities under the proposal, which would free it up to focus more closely on response and recovery, which are arguably its two most important functions. I'd like to see Congress give him the authority to implement his summer recommendations now, even if there is deeper reorganization coming in another six months or so. Chertoff is just about the only one in town who can say "I told you so" right now--he was clearly on target regarding needed changes well before Katrina, as was his senior team.

One final point. Many of the senior people at Homeland Security are first rate, including the deputy secretary, Michael Jackson, and the new head of the Transportation Security Administration, "Kip" Hawley. Now the question is how to make sure the new head of FEMA is up to the job, as Paulison appears to be as acting head, and find new people to run both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Julie Meyers will not survive the Senate confirmation process) and Customs and Border Patrol, where the top jobs is now vacant.

Sorry for going on so long.

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Long Beach, Calif.: Didn't the Louisiana Governor send letters/messages to the President requesting "troops" on Sunday and Monday before Katrina struck?

Paul C. Light: Yes. Problem was that she didn't ask the right way perhaps. She basically said "Send me all the help you can." Somebody simply didn't listen. Right now, we've got tons of plans in Washington--the National Response Plan, the National Incident Management System, etc., etc., etc. Each one comes with page-upon-page of definitions for the dozens of acronyms.

Problem is that most policy-makers don't have time to read the plans and their emergency coordinators can't translate fast enough. The plans are essential, but there has to be some effort to translate them into simple, usable language that everyone can use.

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Laurel, Md.: My father works for FEMA and has been working 12-hour shifts since before Katrina even hit Florida. While Brown may have been creative with his resume, truth is most of the political appointees have little or no experience with whichever agency they are appointed to. In many video-conferences while Katrina was heading towards Louisiana, state officials kept insisting they were fine and that there wouldn't be any problems. I hope that Mr. Brown will release his copies of these meetings so that we can really figure out who dropped the ball.

Paul C. Light: Again, I think there are plenty of problems to deal with at all levels.

We're about to release a public opinion survey here at NYU of public preparedness for emergencies. The news is not good. The survey was completed before Katrina, but clearly suggests that most Americans are (1) not prepared for emergencies, (2) do not know what to expect in the many scenarios of catastrophe that are now in play with natural and human-made uncertainty, and (3) will go everywhere but loose in the event of a real crisis such as a suicide bombing or release of a deadly disease. They are HIGHLY dependent on their local governments and institutions to tell them what to do, but those governments and institutions appear to be, and I emphasize appear, not well prepared themselves to communicate. We've got a lot of work to do, but we obviously have the president's attention, and Congress is gearing up. And there are success stories in all this. The Coast Guard was absolutely terrific, and I'm very impressed with the Red Cross, Salvation Army, etc. There are going to be mistakes and patchiness in delivery, but the charities are doing well, I think.

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Detroit, Mich.: Professor Light: What about the regional directors? These people are left over from the last campaign. Michigan's regional director appears to be qualified, but other regions don't appear to be well served. What are the odds that these folks may be moved out? If not what are the implications? Thank you.

Paul C. Light: Good question, serious problem. One of the back stories is that there were a very large number of vacancies and acting appointees at the lower levels of FEMA when FEMA struck. The heads of the operations, recovery, and mitigation bureaus were all acting appointees, including one who was still running Region V in Chicago, and four of the ten regional offices were vacant. You could ease the problem here by reducing the number of political posts in FEMA, indeed across the government as whole so the White House and Senate can concentrate their focus on the very most important jobs, while leaving the rest to career officers.

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Alexandria, Va.: I understand Brown made somewhat of an attempt to pass the buck to Louisiana officials by making the comment that FEMA's procedures worked well in Mississippi and Alabama and only broke down in Louisiana. Well, that's kind of the problem, isn't it? The kind of overwhelming devastation that occurred (and occurred exactly as predicted) in New Orleans is exactly the situation where local officials are going to be overwhelmed and desperately need federal help. A hurricane in New Orleans, and earthquake in LA or SF, these situations, more than any other, are exactly what we need FEMA and Homeland Security for. Not to minimize what Katrina did to Mississippi or what Rita did to Texas, or to suggest that those governments didn't need federal assistance, but they could have gotten by on their own if necessary. New Orleans didn't stand a chance.

Paul C. Light: Again, time for him to go home.

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Twin Cities, Minn.: When I was working on my Master's of Public Administration, I worked on an internship with the state branch of homeland security and streamlining emergency operation plans into the new National Incident Management system. Our team was a bit aghast, and I'd assume even more so now, that the state didn't stockpile emergency necessities because of the cost of storage and rot. The numbers for vendors were eluded to as the phonebook. I'm scared most states have frittered away homeland security money on balancing state budget shortfalls and other things that have left us no more prepared than pre-911.

Paul C. Light: I think there has been a lot of waste in the homeland security grants program, in part because of pork-barrel earmarks by Congress, and in part because the formula for distribution was not based on risk. I can't tell you how many calls I've gotten from reporters asking who decides how the dollars get spent. The answer is what economists call a substitution effect. Many local and state governments have used the dollars to pay for things they were going to buy anyway--e.g., new fire trucks--or for things they didn't need--e.g., one county bought a mobile crime lab they are using to crack down on meth labs.

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D.C.: It is extremely jarring to hear that, in a catastrophe, my life could very well depend on Anthony Williams' ability to coordinate rescue teams and equipment delivery. I think Mr. Williams is a competent man, but a major catastrophe is a special circumstance that should be handled by specialists, isn't it? That's what FEMA's for, isn't it?

Apparently not.

All I know is that last month, none of my friends had a disaster plan or kit in their homes, and now all of them do. September 11 didn't scare us, but Katrina sure enough did because it is now obvious that in the remote event of a major disaster, we will be utterly and completely left to our own devices.

Paul C. Light: You do need to think ahead about how you can last for two or three days on your own--bottled water, food, a plan for connecting with family when the cellular system goes down. Unfortunately, our recent survey suggests that a substantial minority of Americans simply do not have the time, resources, or sense of urgency to act. It's not that they think disasters are unlikely--many Americans expect suicide bombings and biological/chemical attacks in the coming years. Rather, it's that most believe it won't happen in their home town--they believe their communities are too small, too trivial, or somehow too lucky to be a target.

We've got to work this harder.

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Washington, D.C.: I submit that critics generally believe that, should FEMA and other agencies/government bodies have done something different, everything would have gone perfectly and that no living thing would have been harmed. Balderdash! Where is the objective, empirical evidence to inform our national discourse that suggests alternative outcomes based upon different actions? History is replete of examples highlighting the limitations of mankind and government. Proceeding with great haste may have helped, but no one knows to what degree. No matter how prepared, things would have gone wrong. "No plan survives first contact with the enemy."

Paul C. Light: Agreed. We have all learned important lessons here, including ways to strengthen our models of how evacuations occur, etc., etc. Texas will have gasoline tankers prepositioned during the next evacuation, for example. And there's no doubt that people would have been hurt no matter how fast FEMA moved--some citizens are bound and determined to tempt fate. But I think we have to acknowledge that something went desperately wrong in New Orleans--we didn't do all we could have.

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Washington, D.C.: While there may be plenty of blame to go around, could you identify just one or two things that local and state officials should have "done better" to prepare for and respond to Katrina?

Paul C. Light: The New Orleans evacuation plan was not well executed, for example. Buses not used, Amtrak trains not filled, etc. Many first responders left with their families and never came back, for another example. That could have been addressed by having a designated redeployment destination for quick reentry to the city. But this all has to be reviewed with a bit of distance.

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New Roads, La.: Will this congressional public hearing process, which is open to charges of partisanship, be the only formal source of information for congress in writing legislation to try to make future responses more effective?

Paul C. Light: I think Congress and the president will eventually reach some kind of agreement for a fair and open assessment. My main concern is that Americans be reassured that they can trust their governments when they are told what to do. I don't think that trust is easily to build and hold if our national, state, or local institutions seem closed to full and transparent reviews. As I said much earlier in this chat, I think Homeland Security should move quickly forward with the secretary's proposed reorganization, Congress should let its committees start examining legislative options for improving preparedness, and some independent commission (perhaps even the 9/11 commission) should quickly review the organizational and management issues embedded in this event. We haven't much time to act.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: As someone who had "boots on the ground" in New Orleans as part of a FEMA Urban Search & Rescue Task Force, I can say that the State and Local government command and control there were nothing short of pathetic -- bordering closely on the reprehensible. City and State leaders refused to communicate with each other and the Federal government elements; essential personnel were AWOL; decision making was non-existent. This is not about blame. This is about accountability. The Federal DHS and FEMA response had to engage not only a major natural catastrophe but overcome the immense deficit left by the Mayor of New Orleans and the Governor of Louisiana.

Paul C. Light: Very useful comment from the ground. The question is what to do when governments fail, which is bound to happen in major catastrophes. Do we federalize? Do we activate the military? We need to talk frankly about when and where the federal government should have the authority to place a city and/or state emergency system into the equivalent of "receivership." What are the steps? How fast should we act? It's an important policy debate that we need to engage as part of the post-Katrina investigations.

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Sims, N.C.: Will the democratic mayor and governor continue to be scapegoated? What about Hayley's sweetheart clean up deal in Miss.? Once again the media seems to be the conduit for Republican smears. Everyone messed up to some extent, but the way the mayor and governor of La. are being browbeaten shows this is nothing but another political game.

Paul C. Light: This story is going to play out over a very long time, perhaps well into next year. We'll certainly get another look before the next hurricane season. The sooner we get into an independent, bipartisan investigation, the better.

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Rowland Heights, Calif.: Is Michael Brown criminally liable for the death and destruction in New Orleans for being negligent to his role as head of FEMA?

Why is he receiving a stipend as Cabinet official when he has been terminated from that post?

What will happen to these house hearings that are mostly covered by Republican Congressmen? Is there any chance of getting independent prosecutors?

Does the Bush administration intend to pass the buck to Brown and sweep the other dirt under the rug, blame local officials and beep up their poll ratings?

When are we going to see the light of bipartisanship or spirit of compromise from both parties in deliberation of national interest? It appears that their interests are all self serving.

Paul C. Light: I believe that Brown is still on the payroll in some way--perhaps as a consultant to FEMA as part of his severance. But that needs to be cleared up.

There are some very talented members of Congress who are ready to work on these issues, including members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. I'd like to see the Senate, House, and White House sit down together as soon as possible to launch an effort to repair the federal, state, and local system. The best picture for restoring confidence is not another shot of President. Bush in the Gulf States, but one of him calling the congressional leadership together to iron out a plan for the future.

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Ashland, Mo.: As a citizen, isn't it foolish to assume the federal government or any other government is going to bail you out of a disaster? Aren't you better off assuming there will be no help? Is there any record of consistent government competence at handling disasters without sustained personal assistance by citizens who are not government employees?

Paul C. Light: I strongly urge you to be ready to spend the first days after a disaster on your own. Go to http://www.ready.gov/ and look at what you'll need. Prepare your family for the breakdown in communications, etc.

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Chesapeake Beach, Md.: FEMA Director Brown pointed out a few times when I was watching that FEMA is not a first responder. They don't show up on day one with a change of clothes and a bottle of water. People are on their own for the first 72 hours.

Do you feel the fact that this hurricane hit an area where people were unable (unwilling, or unprepared) to go 72 hours on their own interfered with or hampered FEMA's efforts to respond? Was FEMA stuck doing things in the first few days they don't normally have to deal with in an area where people are prepared to go 72 hours without assistance (like hundreds of helicopters and boats rescuing people and evacuating busloads of residents)?

Paul C. Light: There is a very serious "preparedness divide" in this country between rich and poor, educated and less-educated. My survey work suggests that the divide is based on class, not race. When asked what they would do in the event of a catastrophe such as a terrorist bombing or release of deadly virus in their own community, roughly a fifth of Americans simply answer that they simply don't know. We'll be releasing this survey in the coming weeks. Important to realize that not everyone can be prepared, and that government and charitable organizations and businesses all have a role in helping close the divide.

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Kiawah Island, S.C.: Dr. Light,

As someone that lives in an area that could potentially be hit and devastated by a hurricane, I am well aware of the potential devastation and aftereffects of direct hit by a storm. Until Katrina, I thought a mandatory evacuation meant that people had to leave. In any case, the authorities here(local ones) tell everyone emphatically that if you stay you are on your own. Why is it that the people who decided to stay should not take the same amount of responsibility regarding their situation as the authorities that failed them. I see a reluctance on the part of the government to speak on this obvious truth. Your thoughts?

Paul C. Light: It's a truth to a point. But some people couldn't leave because of the lack of transport. Government has to step in sometimes and provide the resources. I keep thinking of the picture of all those school buses in New Orleans that sat in a neat line in knee-deep water. How can we make sure they are used more effectively in the future?

That's it for me. Very good questions from you all.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Ohmygosh - was he NUTS testifying like that? He looked and sounded extremely defensive, blaming the La. governor and N.O. mayor for the majority of the problems...

He couldn't have dug himself a deeper hole in my opinion. To get even several Republican Senators to rail against him during the hearing - One of the worst things I've seen since Mark McGuire's "I don't want to talk about the past" Senate performance.

I can't imagine there won't be some sort of fallout after this. Seems to me if he wanted to salvage his reputation, he pretty much did the opposite.

Paul C. Light: Okay, I can't resist. The answer to this question is probably "yes."

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