Hours after Hurricane Katrina passed New Orleans on Aug. 29, as the scale of the catastrophe became clear, Michael D. Brown recalls, he placed frantic calls to his boss, Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, and to the office of the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr.Skip over the explanation of the interview ("Mr. Brown's version of events raises questions about whether the White House and Mr. Chertoff acted aggressively enough in the response....The account also suggests that responsibility for the failure may go well beyond Mr. Brown..."), and you begin to find the real nut of the problem:
Mr. Brown, then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he told the officials in Washington that the Louisiana governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, and her staff were proving incapable of organizing a coherent state effort and that his field officers in the city were reporting an "out of control" situation.
With only 2,600 employees nationwide, he said, FEMA must rely on state workers, the National Guard, private contractors and other federal agencies to supply manpower and equipment.So, the state agencies failed (except they say they didn't); the National Guard was, well, "nationalized" and shipped off to Iraq, along with the equipment they would have needed (apparently the only such equipment available to the Guard in the entire country), and private contractors? Since when do we rely on private contractors as first responders?
And here's a picture of how it went down. with the emphasis on "down":
What do you need? Help me help you," Mr. Brown said he asked them. "The response was like, 'Let us find out,' and then I never received specific requests for specific things that needed doing."So Brown is so worried about the evacuation on Saturday, that by Sunday morning he's asking Bush to call Mayor Nagin and emphasize the need to leave. On Monday, he calls Chertoff and the White House, and basically whines: "I cannot get a unified command established." By Monday night, he's just in over his head:
Governor Blanco's communications director, Mr. Mann, said that she was frustrated that Mr. Brown and others at FEMA wanted itemized requests before acting. "It was like walking into an emergency room bleeding profusely and being expected to instruct the doctors how to treat you," he said.
That night, Mr. Brown said, he called Mr. Chertoff and the White House again in desperation. "Guys, this is bigger than what we can handle," he told them, he said. "This is bigger than what FEMA can do. I am asking for help."Ask yourself: if FEMA is the part of the Federal government that responds to disasters like this, how can this be "bigger than what FEMA can do"? And then ask yourself what did Bush do?
On Monday, he went Arizona and Rancho Cucomonga, California. Tuesday, he was in San Diego, and back to Crawford that evening. Wednesday he flew over New Orleans his way back to Washington.
And this is just unintentionally damning:
[Tuesday] morning, Mr. Brown said, he and Governor Blanco decided to take a helicopter into New Orleans to see the mayor and assess the situation. But before the helicopter took off, his field coordinating officer, or F.C.O., called from the city on a satellite phone. "It is getting out of control down here; the levee has broken," the staff member told him, he said.
Why damning? Because the levy breech came early Monday morning, and was reported by the city by 2 p.m. Monday afternoon.
At some point, you just realize, you've got the wrong person in the job:
Mr. Brown acknowledged that he had been criticized for not ordering a complete evacuation or calling in federal troops sooner. But he said the storm made it hard to communicate and assess the situation.Now he tells us.
"Until you have been there," he said, "you don't realize it is the middle of a hurricane."