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Why did FEMA fumble the response to Katrina? Insiders at The Federal Disaster Agency speak out.

BOSNER: We were actually expected to call to the field where these people are knee-deep in water and say, 'look, stop what you're doing and get us this information for Secretary Chertoff'

BRANCACCIO: The charge: hundreds of millions of dollars diverted from the disaster agency to Homeland Security.

FRIETAG: We do have a terrorist threat. But it's one of the many threats we have. We have earthquakes and-hurricanes, as we know.

BRANCACCIO: And the latest on the legal troubles of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, under indictment and under attack.

CRAIG MCDONALD: In Texas for over 100 years now we've had a strict prohibition on using corporate money in politics. So we witnessed a crime. We documented it the best we could-- and called the cops.


That was quite a hearing on Capitol Hill this week into why the emergency response to Hurricane Katrina was so tragically ineffective. The way former FEMA Chief Michael Brown tells it, everyone was to blame except him and his team at FEMA.

Well, insiders at FEMA tell us a very different story. They say they know the real reasons the Federal Disaster Relief Agency performed so disastrously.

Producer Brenda Breslauer and Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa have our report.

MARIA HINOJOSA: How badly did the Federal Emergency Management Agency fail? Listen to these voices from the Gulf — towns battered by Hurricane Katrina.

AARON BROUSSARD, JEFFERSON PARISH PRESIDENT (D): There was a total sense of abandonment here. We had all this great technology but Mother Nature reduced us from the Jetsons to the Flintstones in about three hours.

PHIL CAPITANO, MAYOR OF KENNER, LOUISIANA (R): And you would think that there would have been a plan. Under Homeland Security, it's says that one of the emergencies that they prepare for, part of their mission, just like part of FEMA's mission, is to be able to be there, to handle some of these national emergencies. Where were they?

JANE BULLOCK: I would give FEMA a failing grade. I was shocked that it took four days to get military resources in there. That's not how it's supposed to work.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Jane Bullock spent 21 years working at FEMA.

JANE BULLOCK: When the President declared a national disaster on Saturday, August 27th, before the hurricane hit, that meant that the federal government, FEMA and all of our federal agencies could have moved in and done things to be ready. Nobody pulled the trigger.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Americans everywhere watched these unfathomable scenes. There's no question that breakdowns at the state and local level played a role, but imagine what it was like to witness the federal failures from inside FEMA. Leo Bosner has worked at the agency for 26 years.

LEO BOSNER: We're very-- just incredibly saddened by seeing this human tragedy. But also, for us in the inside at FEMA, to know how things could have been handled much better.

MARIA HINOJOSA: So how did it happen?

Bosner, an emergency management specialist and an employee union president, was tracking the storm on the night shift at FEMA's Washington headquarters. Early Saturday morning his team sent a situation report to then FEMA boss Michael Brown and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. In it they warned there are dire predictions of what may happen in the city. Bosner went home expecting that his bosses would take action.

I think in the back of our minds we all assumed we'd come in and whoever handled this beyond us would've gotten the buses in there, or gotten the National Guards in there, or gotten the Army in there. Whoever-- whoever it was assigned to in the plan. And, have moved to get the people out. And, instead we come in, and nothing much has gone on. Somebody didn't do their job.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Not only wasn't FEMA management doing its job, Bosner complains, it was interfering with his.

LEO BOSNER: We started just getting these telephone calls and e-mails constantly from the Department of Homeland Security saying this is so and so from Homeland Security. Secretary Chertoff has a press conference and we have to know in the next 30 minutes why is there a discrepancy on this number of pounds of ice?

And, what we were expected to do is to run down the federal agency, whoever's delivering the ice, you know, the water. Whoever's got the search and rescue teams out there. And, tell them to please listen, stop what you're doing and get us this information for Secretary Chertoff.

SECRETARY CHERTOFF, 9/1/20: 5.6 million MREs, over 13 million liters of water, thousands of generators, blankets and cots.

LEO BOSNER: And, we were actually at some points expected for them to get on \ their satellite phones and call to the field where these people are knee-deep in water and say, look, stop what you're doing. Secretary Chertoff's got a press conference and wants to make sure his numbers are right.

MARIA HINOJOSA: You're not afraid to speak out?

LEO BOSNER: I haven't broken any laws. I'm speaking as the president of our union, during my off duty hours, giving my own personal views. Not officially representing the government. That's perfectly within the law. And-- as far as threats, I mean I wouldn't want to get fired or anything like that. But look, as a young guy, I was in the Army for three years, I was in Vietnam, I was an infantryman of the 101st Airborne Division. I've seen people get killed. I was wounded once with a hand grenade attack. So unless these guys can top that, what are they going to do? Write me a memo or something?

MARIA HINOJOSA: Bosner's been with the agency since it was founded in 1979 by President Carter. He's also served Under Presidents Reagan, Bush Senior and Clinton. But Bosner says the agency was crippled when FEMA was folded into the department of Homeland Security in the wake of the September 11th attacks. FEMA lost it cabinet level status… budgets and programs were cut, experienced staffers went elsewhere.

LEO BOSNER: If this had happened ten years ago, I think our response would have been a lot more effective. It's just gone down since then.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Jane Bullock worked at FEMA for over twenty years under two Republican administrations and two Democratic ones. Her last job was FEMA Chief of Staff under James Lee Witt, a Clinton appointee.

JANE BULLOCK: When FEMA was transferred into the Department of Homeland Security it lost people, it lost dollars. For example; the National Disaster Medical System — 145 people transferred into the Department of Homeland Security as part of that system. It's now down to 40. There is 500 vacant positions in FEMA.

MARIA HINOJOSA: FEMA has a full time staff of approximately 2500. A FEMA spokesman could not confirm the number of vacancies.

LEO BOSNER: I work in a department in the agency there, which normally is supposed to be staffed to 60 people. It's got 40. That's one-third loss of strength as the people have left, there's no budget to hire new people. Those budgets, slots have gone to Homeland Security. Or, if somebody does get hired in those few occasions, they seem to be friends of friends.

PRESIDENT BUSH: You're doing a heck of a job.

MARIA HINOJOSA: One of those friends was Michael Brown, whose inexperience became glaringly apparent during Hurricane Katrina. Then allegations surfaced that he had exaggerated portions of his resume. Michael Brown resigned.

MARIA HINOJOSA: A lot of fingers were pointed at Mike Brown. So is he ultimately responsible here?

JANE BULLOCK: I feel very badly for Mike Brown. He did not have the experience to do that job. And unfortunately, surrounded himself with equally as inexperienced people in terms of his Chief of Staff and his Deputy Chief of Staff.

LEO BOSNER: You can look at the FEMA website and see who the top people are and read their-- read their biographies right on the website and let me know how many long time emergency planners you see in there because you're not going to see many.

And, I doubt you're going to see many at Homeland Security either. And now, they're-- now we're all paying the price. You cannot just go on bringing unqualified people at the top and expect the agency to perform its mission in a crisis. You can't do it.

MARIA HINOJOSA: It's a far cry from the agency the Bush administration inherited, says Jane Bullock.

JANE BULLOCK: FEMA was a brand name in the 90s. We were a success story. This administration has not made it a priority. When the Bush administration transition team came in to meet with FEMA officials, they met with myself and several other members of the staff, and they kept asking me about FEMA assets in national security, which we have.

I asked them; You know you could be in office two weeks and you could have a major earthquake in California, or some place else. Aren't you concerned about the disaster response capabilities in the agency and how the system works? And their response to me was; Well, we think-- you know it was smoke and mirrors, you did a good PR job.

MARIA HINOJOSA: It was only public relations that they said made FEMA successful?

JANE BULLOCK: That was the intent of their comments. That it was public relations.

LEO BOSNER: My own take on it is this. And-- there's a long time guy in Washington, there are such things as political plums.

And I think, in the current Administration, this became a really neat thing. Like, hey, I worked hard in the campaign, I got the so many votes, I donated so much money, I'd like to be a big shot at FEMA. That'd be really cool. I'd get to wear a FEMA shirt, and look good, and all that kind of thing. And this is what shocked a lot of us, in 2001, when the administration came in.

I mean we're civil servants. Democrats or Republicans alike, that's fine. We all assumed that Mr. Bush would find an experienced, long timed experienced, well qualified Republican emergency manager.

It's not that hard to find them. There's plenty of state disaster directors. Civil defense directors. Fire chiefs. These people who know emergency planning, who are Republicans.

We just assumed one of these people would get the job at FEMA. And we were a little-- we were quite taken aback when the job as FEMA director, in 2001, went to Joe Allbaugh, who had been a political consultant, who ran a political campaign.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Joe Allbaugh called FEMA quote "an oversized entitlement program." One of the administration's first targets was Project Impact, an innovative disaster prevention program started at FEMA during the Clinton years.

JANE BULLOCK: The idea was, the people in a community would come together with the private sector with the academic people in their communities, average citizens, and say; what are the risks our community face and what can we do about those risks? Can we put film on our school windows so the school can be a shelter and can open right after the hurricane goes through? Can the private sector help their employees make their houses safer, so that they can come back very quickly after a disaster. It was a very small funded project that had a huge impact on communities.

BOB FRIETAG: People understood that they had responsibility.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Bob Frietag was a FEMA official in earthquake-prone Washington state for two decades. Now on the faculty of the University of Washington, he was a big believer in Project Impact.

BOB FRIETAG: It was a very, very worthwhile program. It did not pay for a lot of consultants but it paid to have people to work an idea locally.

MARIA HINOJOSA: The program was credited with saving lives in a major earthquake that shook Puget Sound in 2001.

BOB FRIETAG: Soon as this administration came in and the project was gone. The reports were off the shelf. And I think-- I-- you know, I can't understand why.

MARIA HINOJOSA: So why was it cancelled?

JANE BULLOCK: The official answer to that is; they felt that the program was ineffective. I think the fact is when the Bush administration came in they did not put a priority on disaster response mitigation programs like Project Impact. I think Republicans tend to believe more in personal responsibility and less government, smaller government. We can see that with FEMA. There's less FEMA. Smaller FEMA. And we see what has happened.

MARIA HINOJOSA: And after 9/11 when the agency was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA saw its resources diverted into the war on terror.

BOB FRIETAG: After 9-11, the training changed, and the emphasis changed. I mean everything became, you know, terrorism. And we do have a terrorist threat. And it's a very significant terrorist threat. But it's one of the many threats we have. We have earthquakes and hurricanes, as we know. So this balanced approach was kind of put in the back burner because the area of interest really was terrorism.

MARIA HINOJOSA: The Deparment Of Homeland Security sends roughly 2.3 billion dollars each year to state and local governments to combat terrorism but just 180 million dollars to help prepare for natural disasters. Yet in the past decade, of the 566 major disasters declared by the federal government, only three count as terrorism: the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11th attacks on the Pentagon and The World Trade Center.

ERIC HOLDEMAN, EMERGENCY MANAGER, WASHINGTON STATE: We've had 20 presidentially declared disasters in the last 40 years in King County alone. Not one of those was for terrorism.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Eric Holdeman an emergency manager in Washington state says this new emphasis on terrorism has tied the hands of local authorities.

ERIC HOLDEMAN: The whole system is out of whack.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Earthquakes and volcanoes are the biggest threat in Holdeman's county. But over the last three years, he's received only $700,000 in funding from Homeland Security for natural disasters. He's gotten fifty times that amount in Homeland Security grants for counter-terrorism, 35 million dollars.

ERIC HOLDEMAN: There's no flexibility whatsoever. It has to use be used for chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear xplosive training, planning, or exercises. If I wanted to use some of that money for a volcano exercise or an earthquake exercise-- the answer is no. You cannot do that.

MARIA HINOJOSA: What's more, Holdeman says, FEMA's coordination with state and local officials before a disaster has all but been eliminated.

ERIC HOLDEMAN: It's like walking into the Super Bowl of disasters-- with the quarterback FEMA. And we've never-- prepared a game plan together. We've never scrimmaged together. And we're going to go on the field, and the only play we got to run is a Hail Mary. You know, everybody run down field, I'll throw the ball to you and hope that somebody catches it. I mean that's what we're being set up for currently.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Some of that fumbling was evident last year when four hurricanes hit Florida. The SOUTH-FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL broke the story that FEMA bought Miami-Dade residents rooms full of furniture and thousands of appliances to the tune of 21 million dollars for a storm that inflicted little damage in the county. Remember, Florida was a battleground state in an election year.

JANE BULLOCK: Assets were pre-deployed before those hurricanes. Not only assets being pre-deployed, but there were trailer-- pop-up trailers, mobile homes for people to move in almost immediately after that. You didn't see mobile homes going in to Mississippi until almost ten days after the disaster, after Katrina.

MARIA HINOJOSA: They were willing to spend money in Florida before, because--

JANE BULLOCK: I think it's politics.

MARIA HINOJOSA: There was an election coming up.

JANE BULLOCK: There was an election coming up.

MARIA HINOJOSA: In May, a government audit found that FEMA made $31 million in questionable payments in Florida during that 2004 hurricane.

The Department of Homeland Security and FEMA did not respond to our dozen phone calls and several emails requesting an interview. A FEMA spokesperson did tell us politics play no role in disaster response. But that's not how insiders see it.

MARIA HINOJOSA: There might be some people who say, "Oh, Leo Bosner, he's that union guy. He's always gonna be upset with management." And that you're just continuing the complaining against management.

LEO BOSNER: Well, I'm upset when I see money being poured down the drain. I'm kind of a cheapskate myself. My wife and I recycle everything. I feel as a public employee, as a civil servant, I have a responsibility. It hurts me to see the money wasted in such ways it hurts our ability to protect the kids, protect the people that might be hurt in these disasters. That's wrong, and it does upset me. And yeah, I will squawk and make a fuss when this happens.

JANE BULLOCK: We have actually taken one of the most respected and best respected agencies in, not just the United States, but the world, and taken it back to where it was in the 1980's when Senator Hollings called us the sorriest bunch of jackasses and Congressman Norm Manetta said FEMA could screw up a two car parade.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Are you revved up, ready to tackle this, or are you feeling defeated?

JANE BULLOCK: I'm not feeling defeated at all. I-- the-- I-- oh, I didn't want to do this. There are so many dedicated people at the Federal level, at the state level and the local level who want to make this work, who feel horrible that the people in the Gulf suffered the way they did. They want to do their jobs. They need the political will and the political courage to take the steps at the highest levels to make them do their job.

BRANCACCIO: The fallout to the botched response to Hurricane Katrina is not the only thing creating headaches for the White House this week.

On Wednesday, a Texas grand jury indicted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on one count of conspiring with two of his fundraising officials to violate state campaign finance laws, a scheme we reported on last year.

House rules require DeLay to step down from his leadership role, at least while the case winds through the courts. DeLay's rise from professional exterminator to a Republican powerbroker has been closely watched by Craig McDonald, from the non-profit watchdog group Texans for Public Justice.

BRANCACCIO: Craig McDonald, thanks for doing this.

CRAIG MCDONALD: Good to be here.

BRANCACCIO: Now couple years ago you filed a complaint with the district attorney's office there in Austin, that complaint was one of the things that actually got the ball rolling. What worried you?

CRAIG MCDONALD: Well what worried us is we witnessed what we saw was a major crime against democracy, a major crime against Texas elections. When we looked at the 2002 election campaigns we saw nearly $3 million of what we believed was corporate money funneled into the state on behalf of a slate of candidates that Tom DeLay had been supporting for the Texas legislature. In Texas for over 100 years now we've had a strict prohibition on using corporate money in politics.

So we witnessed a crime. We documented it the best we could and called the cops. That is we went to Ronnie Earl and filed a criminal complaint with Ronnie Earl asking him to investigate Tom DeLay and the activities of his political committee, which is known as TRMPAC.

BRANCACCIO: Now, I think you would agree that politics in Texas tend toward the crazy sometimes. But back before this investigation touched a national figure like Tom DeLay, why would someone outside of Texas care, frankly, about a state house or a set of state house races in Texas?

CRAIG MCDONALD: Well Tom DeLay cared greatly. Tom DeLay wanted to increase the number of Republican members of Congress from the State of Texas, to increase his party's power and to increase his own personal power in Washington. And he used corporate money to do that and he was successful at it. That allowed him to get the Texas legislatur,e now in the hands of his crony Republicans, to redistrict the state of Texas. And he gained six congressional seats in Congress.

BRANCACCIO: Well we can't dispute the fact that that was the result. Whether or not actually corporate money was used I guess a jury has to figure out.

CRAIG MCDONALD: Well, we've already had a jury figure part of that out. This investigation is almost at the three-year point and though Tom DeLay and his lawyers yesterday adamantly denied that any crimes had been committed in this scandal, a civil jury just four months ago has ruled against TRMPAC. And it ruled pretty strongly that TRMPAC violated Texas's prohibition on raising and spending corporate money. There's no disputing the underlying cheating that TRMPAC and the Texas Association of Business engaged in.

BRANCACCIO: Congressman DeLay says he has done nothing unethical. He has done nothing illegal. Is this going to be a tough case to prove, this supposed conspiracy?

CRAIG MCDONALD: The Grand Jury certainly saw enough evidence to warrant an indictment against Tom DeLay. That evidence hasn't yet been made public. Perhaps it's an email.

Perhaps it's a memo. Perhaps there's an informer who's been talking to the grand jury. At this point we just don't know.

BRANCACCIO: You know Mr. McDonald if you step back from this a little bit give me a sense of really what the beef is. What is the problem with corporate or union money in political campaigns?

CRAIG MCDONALD: Well it aggregates too much power in one place. You know and corporations have the ability to raise unlimited amounts of money through the marketplace. And we've seen the results of it. Tom DeLay's successful takeover of the Texas Legislature really closed the doors and it closed the doors not only to consumers and to environmental groups. When Tom DeLay's folks got in office thanks to these piles of corporate cash they really circled the wagons.

And the only people who got inside the process since 2002 were the big corporations who had contributed to the campaigns and to Tom DeLay's committee such as TRMPAC. Even small business people have been complaining that they've been locked out of the Texas legislature since the DeLay team took over in 2002.

BRANCACCIO: As you may know I was in Austin middle of last year in District Attorney Ronnie Earl's office talking about some of this stuff. He had this to say:

DISTRICT ATTORNEY RONNIE EARL: In a democracy we have a job to do. That's what we're called to do as citizens in a democracy is pay attention to what our elected officials are doing and pay attention to what the corporations we do business with are doing. When we don't pay attention we lose our democracy. And there are people who would love to steal democracy and use it as a way to make money. That's the danger here.

BRANCACCIO: Mr. McDonald though, if you also are right, that democracy is best served by making sure that big money interests aren't unfairly represented haven't you already lost the battle here? I mean the 2002 election happened in Texas. The redistricting happened. More Republicans went to Washington. It's I guess we would say in public broadcasting a fete accompli.

CRAIG MCDONALD: Well, yes you're right and that's why we're not satisfied with the indictment of Tom DeLay. We take some satisfaction in that Tom DeLay, the most powerful member of Congress, perhaps in America, certainly in Texas, is going to be held accountable in front of a court of law.

True justice here would demand that we undo the 2002 elections but no jury, no court, no prosecutor can undo the damage that's already been done. We can only hope that those who broke the law are held accountable so it sends a deterrent message to others who might come after Tom DeLay.

BRANCACCIO: Well, Craig McDonald thank you very much.

CRAIG MCDONALD: My pleasure.

BRANCACCIO: If you want to see some more numbers on the costs of Katrina by following the links on our Web site at

And that's it for NOW. I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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