Leaders in a crisis have only two options; either they can try to control events or have events control them. Judging by the remarks made by former FEMA head Michael Brown in this interview with the New York Times, it appears that leaders at all levels – local, state, and federal – not only became captive to events surrounding the aftermath of the hurricane, but also failed to work together to get on top of the situation, wasting precious hours dithering about a “unified command structure” while the situation in the city spiraled out of control.
If it was Mr. Brown’s purpose to defend his actions during the disaster, he did a horrible job. Brown is revealed to be clueless, an absolutely disasterous choice to lead an agency where a hard nosed “can do” attitude is absolutely essential. Instead, he appeared in New Orleans believing himself to be a glorified waiter – someone whose job it was to write down the state’s order for hurricane relief rather than act as an executive who should have anticipated what was needed and behaved accordingly. This quote from Governor Blanco’s communication director is revealing:
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.
It’s clear that Brown believed his job was to stay in the background and act as a facilitator of federal help:
When he arrived in Baton Rouge on Sunday evening, Mr. Brown said, he was concerned about the lack of coordinated response from Governor Blanco and Maj. Gen. Bennett C. Landreneau, the adjutant general of the Louisiana National Guard.
“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.”
Of course, the scope of the disaster made “specific requests” moot. New Orleans needed everything and they needed it yesterday. Once this became clear – certainly by Tuesday morning- Brown should have been screaming for every available federal resource to be put into the pipeline and sent towards the beleagured city. Instead, like a good little waiter, he sent a list of what the city needed to Baton Rouge!
The next morning [Tuesday], 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.
The crowd in the Superdome, the city’s shelter of last resort, was already larger than expected. But Mr. Brown said he was relieved to see that the mayor had a detailed list of priorities, starting with help to evacuate the Superdome.
Mr. Brown passed the list on to the state emergency operations center in Baton Rouge, but when he returned that evening he was surprised to find that nothing had been done.
“I am just screaming at my F.C.O., ‘Where are the helicopters?’ ” he recalled. ” ‘Where is the National Guard? Where is all the stuff that the mayor wanted?’ “
This is simply unfathomable. Officials in Baton Rouge were already overwhelmed and Brown wonders why his little “to do” list wasn’t acted on?
This was a man in clearly over his head. This should have been apparent to the White House when Mr. Brown called to complain that he couldn’t get a “unified command structure” going with the state of Louisiana:
On Monday night, Mr. Brown said, he reported his growing worries to Mr. Chertoff and the White House. He said he did not ask for federal active-duty troops to be deployed because he assumed his superiors in Washington were doing all they could. Instead, he said, he repeated a dozen times, “I cannot get a unified command established.”
Here’s where Governor Blanco proved herself to be an empty suit. It’s apparent that this lack of “unified command” applied not just to coordination between state and federal authorities, but also between the governor’s office and the Louisiana National Guard. This becomes clear when General HonorÃ© shows up and someone finally takes charge of the situation:
By Wednesday morning, Mr. Brown said, he learned that General HonorÃ© was on his way. While the general did not have responsibility for the entire relief effort and the Guard, his commanding manner helped mobilize the state’s efforts.
“HonorÃ© shows up and he and I have a phone conversation,” Mr. Brown said. “He gets the message, and, boom, it starts happening.”
There is no more damning piece of evidence that proves that officials at all levels of government simply froze up in the face of the daunting challenges posed by the aftermath of the hurricane.
Of course, it wouldn’t be the New York Times unless they tried to place the blame squarely on the White House. This piece of editorializing shows that the Times has a knack for not letting relevant facts get in the way of some good old fashioned Bush bashing:
But Mr. Brown’s account, in which he described making “a blur of calls” all week to Mr. Chertoff, Mr. Card and Mr. Hagin, suggested that Mr. Bush, or at least his top aides, were informed early and repeatedly by the top federal official at the scene that state and local authorities were overwhelmed and that the overall response was going badly.
Mr. Brown’s version of events raises questions about whether the White House and Mr. Chertoff acted aggressively enough in the response. New Orleans convulsed in looting and violence after the hurricane, and troops did not arrive in force to restore order until five days later.
New Orleans “convulsed in looting and violence” less than 24 hours after the hurricane hit because of the absence of local police (a third of whom simply deserted their posts) and the necessity of using the National Guard in the effort to rescue the thousands of citizens trapped on rooftops and in crawl spaces by the flooding.
And the reason that the troops didn’t arrive until “five days later” (there were 7,000 National Guardsmen on the ground in less than 3 days) was because Governor Empty Suit didn’t ask for the troops until Wednesday – two days after the hurricane struck.
It would have been an interesting New York Times article to read if the President had sent in troops on his own. I daresay the Times would be calling for the President’s impeachment following Mr. Bush’s declaration that the state of Louisiana was in rebellion – the only way the President would have been able to send regular army troops into Louisiana to help in law enforcement activities.
The interview with Michael Brown shows that President Bush made an error in judgement when he named this political hack to head up FEMA. But it also shows what happens when events outstrip the ability of leaders to manage them. The monumental nature of this disaster was clearly beyond the competence of governmental institutions to handle. It was made worse by the failure of those in leadership positions to act decisively.