JEFFREY BROWN: Today's shake-up at the top of the Katrina relief effort comes amid intense scrutiny of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its director, Michael Brown. Spencer Hsu of the Washington Post is one of the reporters who's been looking into the record.
Spencer, let's start with Michael Brown himself. There's been a lot of questions about his qualifications. Now on a number of the details of his resume. Tell us the latest.
SPENCER HSU: Time Magazine reported this morning, Jeff, that apparently in his FEMA official biography where Brown listed himself as an assistant city manager in the town of Edmund, Oklahoma back in the 1970s, that a former mayor said that a correct title might have been assistant to the city manager, that he was little more than a college student and an intern.
At the same time it was separately reported by Newsday that in the past when a White House release about Brown's nomination said that he was a representative of an electrical contractor association in Washington, that, in fact, he was just a Colorado representative of the group and that he had only been there six months, not long enough, an official said, for the folks there to get to know his name.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, as we heard earlier in the program tonight, Spencer, Michael Chertoff did not want to make a connection between these details of the resume or the performance and today's change, correct?
SPENCER HSU: That's absolutely true. Secretary Chertoff said this was his decision. He phrased it in terms of what he wanted from Mike Brown's successor. He praised Brown, saying that he did everything he could possibly do to help the victims and rally the federal government's response.
And, in fact, there were really a chain of events dating back to last week at the height of the hurricane catastrophe ranging from, you know, Brown's admissions on national television that federal authorities were not aware of the situation at the New Orleans Convention Center as late as Wednesday or Thursday of the week after the storm, where he appeared to blame hurricane victims for not evacuating.
Later when his background with Bush -- campaign manager and lack of experience in disaster management became clear, and then finally on Monday he was relieved of command in New Orleans, as part of the relief effort, and then today he was relieved of command of all Katrina operations by that -- and replaced by that Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now looking at what has been happening at FEMA as an agency over the last couple of years, one of the things you wrote about in today's paper is what was referred to as a brain drain -- loss of some key people with real experience. Tell us about that.
SPENCER HSU: The tale really is not a secret in Washington but one that perhaps has not been closely scrutinized. Five of top eight FEMA officials have had little experience -- had no experience, really, in emergency management prior to coming to the agency. The top three officials had connections to the Bush campaign or the Bush travel White House, two of the operational directors with disaster response responsibilities had backgrounds as a former lieutenant governor of Nebraska. Another man was an official with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
When you got to that next layer of the ten regional directors for FEMA, nine of ten were in acting capacities. Now the -- FEMA would say that that is because they went directly to career professionals and career professionals can't have a permanent position. But critics say this all goes to a lack of attention, a lack of emphasis and really a lack of seriousness or commitment to emergency preparedness within FEMA.
JEFFREY BROWN: And the key institutional change, of course for FEMA over the last few years is that it was put under the Department of Homeland Security. Now what kind of change has that caused for the agency?
SPENCER HSU: That's right. I mean, across the federal government right now you are seeing a demographic aging that is leading to retirements. But it was worsened at FEMA because after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003. FEMA was taken from an independent cabinet- level agency folded into the department, and then it began losing clout. It began using funding; it began losing ability to make grants to state and local responders.
In the latest reorganization that homeland security Michael Chertoff proposed this summer, he was going to take -- or on the table-- the proposal was to take all emergency preparedness functions away from the agency, consolidated elsewhere in the department. A congressional study said that this was essentially dismantling the agency.
So many of the professionals and career managers that handled Hurricane Floyd, that handled the World Trade Center crisis and Pentagon attacks on 9/11 have left the agency; they are working as consultants or state managers. Morale is very low.
JEFFREY BROWN: And a change in focus from perhaps from these kinds of natural disasters more to terrorism?
SPENCER HSU: That's exactly right. There are a couple of things going on there. As recently as -- two weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit, state emergency managers met with Secretary Chertoff and his deputy, Michael Jackson and urged them to return a focus on to natural disasters, not just terrorisms and WMD that the Bush administration has been emphasizing. Their point is that natural disasters are known, proven quantities that are predictable. Where and when you can't say but you know they will happen. Another thing that is happening is within the department, again, FEMA losing a little bit of clout and a de-emphasis on emergency preparedness and a focus on sort of WMD hazards.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. Spencer Hsu of the Washington Post, thanks very much.
SPENCER HSU: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: So what does today's move mean for FEMA and its ability to deal with Katrina and future disasters? We get perspective from two people who recently worked on homeland security in the government. Clark Kent Ervin was the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department until last December. He issued a number of reports critical of the Department during that time. He is now at the Aspen Institute. And Richard Falkenrath served as deputy homeland security advisor to the president until mid-2004, now with the Brookings Institution. Welcome to you both.
So, Clark Ervin, will this shift of putting someone else in charge down with Katrina and sending Mike Brown back to Washington to deal with future potential catastrophes, is that going to fix the problem?
CLARK KENT ERVIN: Well, it is a half step in the right direction, it seems to me. I got to know Adm. Allen when I was at the Department of Homeland Security. I think he is highly competent, he is very decisive, he projects an image of command which I think is very important on the ground right now. So I think that's a step in the right direction.
I question whether it makes sense to put Brown back in Washington to be in charge of overall FEMA efforts since obviously this kind of thing can and likely will happen again. I think the larger issue is whether there's leadership at the top of FEMA that has the competence that's necessary to do the planning and preparedness that is necessary to make sure this kind of response doesn't happen again.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you think, Richard Falkenrath?
RICHARD FALKENRATH: Well, I agree with Clark that Adm. Allen is one of the most competent officials, in the Department of Homeland Security, one of the public servants I had the pleasure of working with when I was in the government. So that is a step in the right direction.
I think this position that Mike Brown was relieved of, the principal federal officer, was never intended to be director of the entire agency. It was always intended to be someone who would be on the scene dealing with all the state and local officials who were involved in the response.
And it's clear that Mike Brown has some serious problems with the state and local officials in New Orleans and in that region. So from that perspective there is no question that this will improve the ability of the federal assets on the ground to deal with those agencies.
MARGARET WARNER: So I guess the question is, meanwhile, when Secretary Chertoff says, well, I'm sending Mike Brown back to deal with future catastrophes, we have other storms that could be coming or heaven forbid, he alluded to a terrorist incident, should we feel safer?
CLARK KENT ERVIN: I'm afraid that my answer to that is no. I'm sure, unfortunately, the terrorists were watching our response to this incident and they couldn't have been but emboldened, it seems to me, by the response, the chaotic response of the federal government to this.
I think another point to underscore is there is very little difference, it seems to me, as to the kind of preparedness you need to have to be prepared whether it be attack or terrorist attack or natural disaster. You still need an evacuation plan or at least you could, depending on the nature of the terrorist attack. You need supplies of food, and water and medicine. So I think that that's my answer to that question.
MARGARET WARNER: And what is your view of Mike Brown coming back to run FEMA, and talk a little bit, Richard Falkenrath, about how important you think the political background of himself and so many of the senior FEMA people now, the lack of emergency management experience, how new is that, how much difference did that make in this instance?
RICHARD FALKENRATH: Well, I mean, this experience is clearly a terrible blow to Mike Brown and to his effectiveness as a FEMA director.
MARGARET WARNER: You are talking about the Katrina experience.
RICHARD FALKENRATH: Yes, and really his effectiveness now in Washington at that agency, I think, is greatly diminished. As he knows he serves at the pleasure of the president for the time being as our commissions say. And when that is gone, he will leave. Someone else will have to come on board.
It is worth noting, though, that we had quite a number of disasters prior to Katrina, including when FEMA was in DHS where FEMA performed fine, with no apparent problem. There were no stories like this talking about how ineffective FEMA was. And I would say this country hasn't had to deal with a disaster on the magnitude of Katrina since at least Andrew.
MARGARET WARNER: But do you think that this, I mean there was a big brouhaha today about his lack of experience, and not just his lack of experience but it was Spencer Hsu's story that so many of the top people there just had totally political backgrounds.
I mean, on the other hand, FEMA has had a reputation at times for being fairly politicized. Did that make a difference in this Katrina situation?
RICHARD FALKENRATH: I don't think it made a difference, frankly. I think even if we had had all career emergency managers in FEMA at the top positions, which it has never had by the way, I still think we would is have had a terrible devastation in the Southeast.
Further, Mike Brown may have been completely inexperienced when he first arrived at the beginning of the administration when he was general counsel but he had a lot of on-the-job training, two and a half years before he became director and that's not irrelevant. It something I think we need to bear in mind.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. What is your view of that?
CLARK KENT ERVIN: I must say I disagree with that. I think this disaster shows that it is absolutely critical that in an agency like FEMA in a department like Homeland Security, it's critical even more so than other departments to have people at the top who've got long-term experience and expertise in dealing with a disaster of this kind of magnitude.
And to allude to the second point, a number of people in Washington have suggested that the issue is really structural, the fact that FEMA is now in the Department of Homeland Security -- it is not as nimble as it was when it was an independent agency reporting to the president.
I don't think it is a structural issue. I think you would have the very same response if FEMA were independent and reporting to the president if you had the same kind of leader in place at the top. So I think leadership, competence is absolutely key here.
MARGARET WARNER: Richard Falkenrath, explain for people who don't understand how all the pieces work together. I mean, it is pretty clear we had failures from most local levels to the most senior level and we don't know all the facts.
But let's say the director of FEMA and FEMA had performed at optimum levels, what would they have done that we didn't see done leading up to and in the immediate aftermath of Katrina?
RICHARD FALKENRATH: I think there is really only one thing they really could have done that would have made a huge difference, which would have been to persuade the mayor of New Orleans or the governor of Louisiana to order a mandatory evacuation sooner, and then to provide the assistance they needed to carry it out.
What made this disaster different from all the others that we experienced in our history, and what sets it apart as a political phenomenon is the fact there were hundreds of thousands of people stranded in a flooded city, without food or water and with disorder in the streets. And that was because they weren't evacuated according to plan.
The evacuation authority is vested in the governor and the mayor. And so what the -- if the federal government prior to landfall is guilty of anything, it's guilty of a failure to persuade the local authorities to do the right thing, and to anticipate that they would be ineffective at doing it as the storm developed.
MARGARET WARNER: Is that part of their role and responsibility, this pre-planning and getting the state and local officials ready?
CLARK KENT ERVIN: Well, certainly the preplanning is key. Certainly, there is no question about that. I don't know how much persuading the state and local officials needed in order to order an evacuation. There is going to be obviously an investigation afterwards. We will determine exactly who did what when.
But my sense of the situation is that the state and local didn't need persuading. As soon as it was clear that this was going to be a category five storm and that the levees might break, even before the levees did break, it seems to me that the evacuation plan should have been triggered.
And before that there should have been a plan in place to shelter people and to provide adequate amounts of food and medical attention and other supplies that were necessary. Clearly that was not done. And yet this could easily have been anticipated, and indeed, was for many years by experts both in and outside of FEMA.
MARGARET WARNER: That is the other FEMA responsibility, is it not, is the response to the disaster. For instance, in a terrorist attack you don't really have time to pre-plan. But now would you fault them there as well?
RICHARD FALKENRATH: Well, yeah, there is no question the federal government fell short after the hurricane, when the floodwaters were in New Orleans, getting a response.
MARGARET WARNER: What explains that?
RICHARD FALKENRATH: It is really hard to explain. Here, I think it's important to say we don't know all the facts.
MARGARET WARNER: No, we don't.
RICHARD FALKENRATH: We don't know when, which assets were mobilized, what decisions were made and what timetable and that all needs to come out in an independent commission in my judgment. But there is no question that the American people expected a federal presence sooner in New Orleans. And it wasn't available. And that is a major, major failure.
A couple hypotheses, Margaret -- and one is I think the federal government was assuming the state and local authorities could last longer than they did -- that their services could provide for the people for, you know, two, three days, and that was not the case.
Second, I think they underestimated the cascading failure of the infrastructure systems down there around New Orleans, the roads, the energy, communications. And that impaired their ability to get in greatly.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you have a theory? You studied the whole Department of Homeland Security up close.
CLARK KENT ERVIN: Well, it seems to me at the Department level as a whole there has been a lack of attention to detail, a lack of focus on management. And I think we're seeing the consequences of that. It seems to me absolutely inexcusable that, frankly, both the secretary as well as the FEMA director said it wasn't until Thursday that they learned there were thousands of people stranded without food and water when all you had to do was turn on the television set to see that. So it seems to me a lack of attention to detail. And it is just inexcusable. It is inexplicable. I don't have an explanation for it. I don't know that there is one.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, really briefly, what do you make of the criticism that too much of FEMA's time has been preparing for terrorist attacks versus natural disasters, very briefly?
RICHARD FALKENRATH: I frankly don't make much of it. I think that this government and that department and that agency need to do both. And FEMA had not spent a lot of time working on terrorism threats prior to 9/11. And they needed to do more. So they have to do both. The one cannot be at the exclusion of the other. They need to get better on both natural disasters and man-made disasters simultaneously.
MARGARET WARNER: And you wrote a column saying that is why they need more money?
CLARK KENT ERVIN: Right, and further I made the point that they are essentially the same thing. There may be a few things that are unique to a terrorism response but largely need the same kind of preparedness and planning irrespective of the provenance of the disaster.
MARGARET WARNER: Clark Ervin, Richard Falkenrath, thank you both.
RICHARD FALKENRATH: Thanks, Margaret.
CLARK KENT ERVIN: Thank you, Margaret.