GARDEN DISTRICT – On Friday night, former FEMA director Michael Brown made an ackonwledgement about his handling of the post-Katrina tragedy unfolding in New Orleans.
He should have let Anderson Cooper tag along on a rescue patrol. When he denied Cooper permission, thinking that it made little sense to take up two seats on a boat for a reporter and his cameraman, Cooper chartered his own boat, skipped by the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries boat, and rescued some stranded people. He then used this as the smoking gun of his constant tirades about FEMA's ineffectiveness.
“Anderson," Brown said to a small audience at the Garden District Book Shop Friday night. "If you just toned it down and looked behind you, you would see that was the next house to be rescued on the grid.”
The occasion for Brown's visit to New Orleans was to introduce his book about the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, Deadly Indifference. Brown thinks that the media can be partially blamed for supplies not making it to New Orleans.
“We had trucks coming in from everywhere,” Brown states. When they heard news reports about how anarchy had broken out, bullets flying everywhere, murders on every street corner the truckers became terrified and stopped outside the city. It's not as though FEMA could stipulate in their contracts with trucking companies that their drivers must do their job. If they had such a stipulation, as Brown said, the truckers would “go to Congress and complain about being forced to go into this dangerous city”.
Congress, of course, always listens to terrified truckers.
According to Brown, even the people who are the victims of disasters are partially to blame. “Don't we owe [rescue workers] a modicum of self preparedness so we don't put their lives in danger?” Brown said. This valid point signals a larger problem. Americans don't have the slightest idea how inflexible, slow moving, and reaction-based their government is.
Brown said FEMA's Hurricane Pam exercise, a simulation held in New Orleans in 2004 that had striking similarity with the actual storm that occurred a year later, provided tons of valuable data.
“Pam is a great example of how people think the government works instead of how the government works,” Brown said. It took months for the reports to trickle up to Michael Brown's desk. He read the report in early August. He asked the audience if anyone knew how long it would have taken to implement the changes suggested by the report. A man wearing a vintage “FEMA sucks” shirt shouted out, “Two years!” Brown said that the fastest way to speed up this process is for a natural disaster to occur.
The FEMA-Sucks man had a few bones to pick with Brown. In his opening spiel, Brown said the following regarding the President’s power during a crisis: “All a President can do is say to his FEMA director, 'give them whatever they need.'” Of all of the things that are absurd about this statement, the ardent FEMA hater brought up the obscure case of the U.S.S Bataan, a ship that was sent to New Orleans from Norfolk, Va. The man said the ship could have been used to house evacuees, among other things.
“Under the Commander-in-Chief…that ship could have made the difference,” he said.
Brown replied, “I can't speak to the case of the Bataan…”, which didn't stop him from saying that it would have still been up to the civilian and local authorities to evacuate people to the ship.
“But they could have at least docked,” the man cried in response.
Actually, if either of these men did a Google search, they would have found out the following: “In 2005, BATAAN was called upon to support Joint Task Force Katrina search, rescue and relief efforts in the New Orleans, La., and Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., areas. BATAAN was the first Navy ship on the scene Aug. 30, after Katrina, a category-4 hurricane, made landfall the previous day. BATAAN spent 19 days supporting the relief efforts by moving more than 1,600 people to safety and delivering more than 160,000 pounds of supplies to the Gulf Coast states.”
The FEMA Sucks man had one more complaint about how FEMA bought buses after the storm, which Brown completely ignored.
What he could not ignore was the woman who raised her hand and started, with the always troubling words, “I just came in but, I have this to say…” and went on a long tirade against the Army Corps of Engineers, President George W. Bush, and Michael Brown, not just on behalf of New Orleans but also her personally. She was homeless. This was because she had patents for various types of rescue equipment, and the government did not pay her. “They know me in Washington; you tell them you met me!” she said. She had no questions.
In Brown's eyes, the mistake both of these folks made was attacking Brown. His story, and he's sticking to it, is that he did everything within his limited power. He advised Ray Nagin to evacuate 72 hours before the storm was projected to make landfall, and Nagin chose not to. Once it became clear that the local authorities had no control over the situation, Brown advised Bush to evoke the Insurrection Act and use military force to police the city. Bush decided to give former Governor Kathleen Blanco 24 hours to think it over. “I made my recommendation to the President; that's all I could do.” Besides, he's not even still the FEMA chief, he said. He has no power.
Katrina was a debacle for everyone involved. Nagin and Brown will never be able to live down their roles. Brown knows this far more than Nagin. That's why part of his book deals with future disasters. He closed his introductory statement with this message, “I don't care how angry you are, how mad you are, if you blame me 100 percent, 10 percent, or none at all. I hope you read and think: Are you prepared for a disaster?”
You better be, because the government doesn’t sound like it is.
Michael Brown will speak in New Orleans again today. The talk and signing is schedule for 3 p.m. at the Maple Street Book Shop.