The former FEMA Director discusses Hurricane Harvey and the government’s response.
Former FEMA Director Michael Brown
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Pleased to welcome former FEMA director, Michael Brown, to this program. He joins us now from Denver, Colorado. Mr. Brown, good to have you on the program, sir.
Michael Brown: Good to see you, Tavis. Thanks for having me.
Tavis: My pleasure. Let me jump right in. You were there for Katrina. Have you seen us repeat any or many of the same mistakes with Harvey that we committed with Katrina?
Brown: I think we’ve seen a couple of things. I wrote an article for The Hill magazine about evacuations. I don’t know why in this country, but politicians of all levels seem to be afraid of the word evacuation. And I just think that we do a disservice.
I almost think that sometimes elected officials don’t believe that the American public can handle the truth. And if you would just speak honestly and openly to them about — we have the National Hurricane Center, we have the National Weather Service both predicting catastrophic rainfall for Harris County in Houston.
So having known what happened in 2001 with tropical storm Allison, we knew and they should have known, that there were going to be areas that were going to be flooded and people would need to be rescued.
Now some people have commented and said, well, you can’t evacuate, you know, 6.4 or 7 million people. That’s not my suggestion at all. My suggestion is be honest and open with them about the areas that you think are most likely to flood, encourage them to leave.
Suggest that, if you recall, Hurricane Harvey was going to make landfall on a Friday or Saturday, so get on the air and explain to people, you know, this might be a good weekend to go to Dallas and see grandma or go to Austin and see your uncle or something.
I just think we haven’t learned these lessons that evacuations are not this all or nothing. Evacuations can actually be done in a very timed kind of staged manner where you can get people out of harm’s way. I just don’t understand why we’re afraid to do that.
Tavis: Let me follow up on that because, as we sit for this conversation tonight, Hurricane Irma may very well be bearing down on southern Florida. So the word evacuation is going to come up once again, it appears, whether we like it or not. But to your point, let me ask a few things about that and I want to ask these questions and get out of your way and let you take it, Mr. Brown.
But one, why are politicians so afraid of the word evacuation, number one. Is it that politicians are afraid of it or that citizens don’t want to be told that they have to evacuate because many don’t even when they’re told to evacuate? I mean, what are the politics around the notion of saying to citizens that you need to evacuate?
Brown: I think you just answered your own question, Tavis. It is both of those things. I think that the elected officials are afraid to do it and they’re afraid to do it because, if you’re the mayor or the governor of a state and you tell people, look, if I were you, I would get out of harm’s way now.
I would leave today. I would start moving northward and get out of the way of this storm. Then Hurricane Irma takes a big dive off to the right and goes back into the Atlantic, they will have warned people for nothing.
But I don’t think that should be their concern because, with the information that you have at the time, give that information to people and let them make their own decisions. And to your second point, I do believe that in this country we don’t like to be told by the government what to do.
And I think there’s this natural tendency — look, I got a knock on my door one day. I live up in the mountains outside Denver. It was a deputy sheriff telling me to evacuate because a wildfire had jumped the highway and was coming toward our subdivision. Well, I didn’t waste any time.
First of all, I’m not going to have the old FEMA guy be the one that gets caught in a wildfire [laugh]. But number two, I’m not going to risk my life or the life of the dogs and everything else just because I don’t want to be told what to do.
I got out. I left and I was amazed to see the number of people that did not do that despite the huge amount of smoke, how fast the wildfire was moving. So I just think it’s just this natural human tendency. We don’t want to be told what to do and then we just never believe it.
Let me tell you. I handled 160 presidentially declared disasters and I guarantee you that every single one that I went to, I heard from one if not from a thousand people, I never thought it would happen to me. And I think that’s the mentality everywhere.
Tavis: I think you’re willing to admit to me, Michael, that there are politics that are played even in a society that is so risk-averse. That’s the point you’re making now. Even though we’re a society that tends to be risk-averse, there are politics that get played around these natural disasters. You experienced that with President Bush.
Donald Trump has made some mistakes and some political missteps, I would argue, even around this particular Hurricane Harvey. What is it that doesn’t allow us to move past the politics when it comes to even things like natural disasters?
Brown: Well, you’re right. I will be brutally honest with you and it probably will offend some people. But when you think about it, every single disaster in this country involves one governor, it involves two U.S. Senators, it involves at least one U.S. Congressman, if not more.
It involves at least one or more mayors. It involves at least one president and then it involves the media and then it involves all the people that are in the area of operations in that natural disaster. So you have six or seven constituencies and every single one of those constituencies is vying for attention.
Look, I’m being brutally honest. Every politician whenever disaster strikes wants to be seen. They want to get on the cameras. They want to get in the newspaper. They want their photograph taken of showing that they care and that they’re there helping. And oftentimes, they’re just in the way.
Tavis: That is a brutally honest answer, but I certainly appreciate it. Now that you’re no longer in the FEMA director’s chair, what is your assessment then of the way President Trump has handled things thus far?
Brown: Well, one of my concerns was after we created the Department of Homeland Security back in 2003, one of the problems that I experienced during Katrina was this inability to get the bureaucracy in Washington, D.C. to pay attention and to do what I asked them to do. So I wrote this other Op Ed basically saying to President Trump, “Don’t let Harvey become your Katrina.
You should step to that bully pulpit just like Theodore Roosevelt and you should say to your Cabinet, ‘Look, Brock Long, the current FEMA administrator, when he asks for something, you give it to him instantly without question, without hesitation. And if you don’t like what he asks for, we’ll argue about it later. But don’t argue about it during the middle of the disaster’.” That was probably one of the biggest problems I faced during Katrina.
And I think that, in this disaster and, hopefully, if Irma does make landfall, that we won’t see those kinds of things happening, that the Cabinet will rally around the boss and they will say to the FEMA director, “Whatever you need, we’ll make sure you get it.”
Tavis: When you see these politics being played with issues like this, do you think it ever occurs to these people that they’re playing politics with peoples’ lives? I ask that, for example, because I just read a story today that was disturbing about what’s happening in Houston where you have landlords who are demanding rent from persons whose places have been flooded.
I don’t know how the politics on this particular issue are going to play out, but something is wrong when people can be allowed to force tenants to pay rent when they’ve been flooded out, when they’ve been pushed out, and yet because they have a lease signed, these landlords are still demanding rent in Houston and surrounding areas.
Brown: I think that, in this country — I haven’t seen the story about the landlords in Houston — but I would just simply say this. My experience has been that the vast majority of people care about those individuals and they understand what they’re going through.
And they’re going to sit and they’re going to, I think, think it through and say, “You know what? I understand that right now you may not be able to get to a checkbook. You may not even have an ATM card to get to an ATM to withdraw cash because you’ve lost those things in disasters.”
So I would just say this to those landlords. You need to step back and realize what has happened to these people and, if you’re so darned concerned about your money, maybe you ought to stop and think first about how do they even write you a check? How do they even get cash out of the ATM? How do they do any of these things when all their papers and documents have been destroyed?
So I would caution those landlords you better think twice because you could find yourself in a horrible situation where you’ve lost everything and you don’t want somebody coming banging on your door to get something that you could wait for two or three weeks for.
Tavis: How is that politicians can say they care about their constituents when many of them represent areas that are prone to these kinds of disasters and they continue to deny the science?
I have a hard time trying to square any president, any mayor, any governor, trying to act after the fact like they really care when, on the front side, they denied the science that continues to underscore that these hurricane systems are going to get worse and worse and worse.
They deny climate change, they deny global warming. I’m not trying to be political. I’m just trying to ask you how politicians say on the one hand that they care, but deny the science on the other hand. I can’t square those two things.
Brown: Well, so let me step back for a moment. Because I’m one of those guys that believes that the climate changes all the time. I think it’s up to a debate how much man might influence that or not influence that.
But I can tell you this, Tavis, without any doubt in my mind that what we do as a society when we develop these huge swaths of major cities, whether it be Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, or just Denver, Colorado, all of these places have huge developments. And all of those developments in many cases are done without taking into consideration the natural disaster risks that that community faces.
So I always say to my friends, regardless of where they live, I’ll ask them just a simple question. Do you know what risks you face where you live? And you know what? Even my friends that know I’m the former FEMA director and that I’m really always thinking about these things will kind of shrug their shoulders and go, “I never really thought about it.”
So setting aside the climate debate, I think people need to recognize that whether the storms are going to get stronger or not stronger, we’ve always had hurricanes, we’ve always had tornados, we’ve always had blizzards, we’ve always had wildfires. In fact, I think virtually all of those are going on right now except of a blizzard.
So I think people need to be aware of the risks of where they live and are they prepared for those risks? It’s a very simple question I don’t think most people either ask or answer.
Tavis: Are we ready for — are we prepared for the risk, are we ready for what Hurricane Irma might do so close on the heels of Hurricane Harvey?
Brown: No. I’ve said this for 12 years now since Katrina. I still don’t believe this country is ready. We are a risk-averse society. We think that risk can be reduced to zero. As just human beings, we ought to recognize that we cannot control Mother Nature. We cannot reduce the risk to zero.
So we have to do two things. We have to learn how to mitigate against that risk. So if we’re going to live on the coastal area of Florida where we know hurricanes hit and have hit since the beginning of time, then we have to learn how to mitigate against those so that we don’t see the kind of flooding that we saw in Houston.
If you’re going to live in Houston or you’re going to live in New Orleans, which is a fishbowl that is protected by levies that are not designed to protect, the pumps didn’t work just with the last thunderstorm, people need to be held accountable.
And we need to stop and think about, okay, if we’re going to live here, what are the risks and what can we do to mitigate against those risks? How far can we go to mitigate against those risks? And how much are we willing to spend to do that? If we can answer those questions, I think the country would be better prepared. I just don’t think people like being asked that question.
Tavis: He is the author of the book, “Deadly Indifference”, and he’s the former director of FEMA, Michael Brown. Mr. Brown, good to have you on. Thanks for your insights, sir.
Brown: Thank you Tavis. Appreciate it.
Tavis: That is our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Goodnight from Los Angeles and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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