Welcome to NOW.
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?
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.
You're not afraid to speak out?
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.
A lot of fingers were pointed at Mike Brown. So is he ultimately responsible here?
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.
It was only public relations that they said made FEMA successful?
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.
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.
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.
They were willing to spend money in Florida before, because--
I think it's politics.
There was an election coming up.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Are you revved up, ready to tackle this, or are you feeling defeated?
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.