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THE STORM [home page]
leo bosner

A veteran FEMA employee, Bosner is a watch officer in the National Response Coordination Center. Part of his job is to monitor potential disasters and write FEMA's National Situation Updates, which are sent daily to the director and other top officials and posted on FEMA's Web site. In this interview, Bosner praises former FEMA Director James Lee Witt and talks about how both preparedness and morale improved under his leadership in the 1990s. He is very critical of former FEMA Director Michael Brown, whom he describes as "out of his depth," and of FEMA's merger into the Department of Homeland Security which he says added layers of bureaucracy. He says that as Katrina approached, FEMA went through its usual hurricane preparations, but he and his colleagues were panicking as they were standing by. "We're saying: 'Oh my God, Why aren't we doing more? Why aren't we getting the orders? Why isn't this being treated like a real emergency?' People were just lost." This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 28, 2005.

… Why has FEMA traditionally been so stocked with political patronage jobs?

Back in the '80s, I can understand, because with the cycles of nature as they are, the United States had not experienced any really major killer disasters in a long, long time.

I remember in the '80s I used to write position papers about disaster planning. We always had to use examples out of South America or Mexico earthquake or Africa or something, because there weren't killer disasters in the U.S. So I can forgive them then for saying: "Well, nothing will probably ever happen. We can just give this job to somebody."

But after the mess of Hurricane Hugo and Hurricane Andrew, I think that President Clinton took the agency seriously, gave us a director, James [Lee] Witt, who actually, with the same exact staff who had been there previously, put together a fine agency that did the job.

What I can't understand is why the current administration, having gone through all those disasters -- the Midwest floods, the Oklahoma City bombing and even 9/11 -- why they didn't understand the necessity of having somebody who knew what they were doing at the head of FEMA, Cabinet-level status for the place, [or] at least independent agency status, and a sufficient budget and training to do the job. I can't understand why Bush II let this [be] thrown away. ... All he had to do was find a Republican emergency manager someplace, of which there's plenty, and put him or her in charge of the agency, and he would have a nice, well-running little machine that would make him look good. I can't for the life of me figure why he did what he did.

Witt was put in charge by Clinton. Give me a sense of the morale shift that occurred.

About 180 degrees. Not immediately, but very shortly thereafter. One of the trademarks of Wallace Stickney, the previous director -- and really this one here was [characterized by], among other things, a real aloofness from the agency.

Now, we're not a big agency. We only take up about maybe seven floors of a downtown office building. We have about 400, 500 people downtown. It's not that big. Our FEMA headquarters is probably about the size of this hotel we're having this interview in, maybe smaller, and yet back then, many of the employees didn't even know what Stickney looked like. And nowadays, except for the TV stuff, a lot of the employees probably don't know what [former FEMA Director Michael] Brown looks like, because these fellows were so far removed.

When Witt came in, I remember the first day he was there, he stood in front of the entrance of FEMA like a politician, and he shook hands with the FEMA employees coming in, 8:00 in the morning: "I'm James Witt. I'm your new director. Glad to meet you." Right away people thought, hey, this is interesting. This is something different. He spent a year having open-door meetings with the employees. ...

People were just lost. We couldn't understand -- why aren't we getting the operations orders?  Why haven't the bosses decided to move the people out?

And he knew what he was doing. I think that was the main thing. All that other stuff is nice, but here's a fellow who can -- he'd been a state disaster director for, I don't know, 10 years, 15 years, something like that. He knew the profession. He knew what he was doing.

He would come to the meetings about exercises or preparedness, and he'd say, "Listen, here's what we're going to do." And people would listen, say, "Gee, this guy knows what's he's talking about." It turned around completely.

People want to be well led. I don't care if they're a GS15 section chief or a GS3 clerk typist, most people want to do a good job. They want to be recognized as doing an effective job, and Witt brought us that. And now, since 2001, we've just gone right down the hill again.

What do you think Witt's legacy is in terms of preparedness around the country?

I think that it's hard to know how long a legacy will last in political or social matters. Witt built a system where at this point we in the emergency management field take for granted the Emergency Support Functions: The [E]SF 01 is transportation; the [E]SF 04 is firefighting; the [E]SF 06 is mass care. We all know these things.

Most of the states follow the same model. Witt built a model that most states follow for their emergency planning. I think he built strong partnerships between the federal government, the state and local governments [and] the [volunteer] sector, such as the Red Cross.

I think that there's still a legacy there. But I'm also concerned because things like that, it's like putting wood on the fire. If you don't keep putting wood on the fire, after a while, the fire burns out.

Would state officials and city officials, [Louisiana Gov. Kathleen] Blanco and [New Orleans Mayor Ray] Nagin, [have] been any more prepared for Hurricane Katrina if Witt had been the director of FEMA?

I think so. Number one is, remember we were now five years since Witt has left. In that five years, there's probably been a lot of deterioration in different places. So number one, I think they would have been better prepared, because there would have been more ongoing work with FEMA with getting people in Louisiana trained, with bringing them to seminars to make them understand the new developments.

But the other thing is that if it were at a critical point of should you or shouldn't you evacuate a city, which is a pretty major operation to do, I think any mayor or any governor who might feel nervous about the decision would probably feel a lot more confident if somebody like James Witt was standing there and saying: "Look, you know who I am. You know what I've done. I've looked at your situation. You've got to evacuate, Governor, Mayor, and you've got to do it now." I think that they'd be more persuaded and have more confidence to do that than having some government lawyer standing in front of them saying, "Hey, I think you ought to evacuate." ...

James Lee Witt was never tested in the way that Brown was tested by Katrina or that Stickney was tested by Andrew, was he?

I don't know that that's true. We had some very serious disasters that did take place under Mr. Witt's system. In a way, though, the fact that you'd say that I think speaks to the system that Mr. Witt built.

Now, [what] I'm thinking about particularly is in April of 1995, when the bomb went off in front of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, and no weather maps, no national weather service could tell you two days ahead of time that this was coming. Just damn, there's the bomb. ...

Witt, by that time, had established a response system and had established clear lines of responsibility and had established an atmosphere in the agency that if you were the next person in charge, then by God, you did your job.

And as it happened on that day, at least as I recall it, Witt was off traveling someplace. He himself wasn't there, I don't believe. … It came down to a GS15 who was the duty officer that day who knew his job, who called Oklahoma City, who called the state, called the region -- I mean, quickly -- and made a decision and dispatched the search and rescue teams.

Number one, he was empowered to make that decision, and number two, because the system was in place, those search and rescue teams were on the way within two hours of the time that we saw this on television. That was the system Witt built. In two hours' time, we had search and rescue out the door. This time [Katrina], these fellows had two days' warning on the weather service, and they couldn't get it right. ...

Witt by and large is admired and respected by the FEMA employees. I don't think he was perfect. I think he probably did things and made mistakes and people would disagree with [him]. But he knew what he was doing. ...

Describe what happens when the change in administrations happens.

... I was personally surprised, and I think a lot of people were, because I expected that President-elect Bush had learned the lesson: You need FEMA. FEMA can do a good job for you and make the government look good, etc., [so he] would simply find a Republican political appointee with experience in emergency management. And there's plenty of them around.

That's what you wanted, and that's what you would have expected. But how did [Bush campaign manager in 2000 Joe] Allbaugh perform?

... When someone like Witt comes in in '93 and the place is just about falling apart and he pulls it together, then you can tell he's performing well. It wasn't really very easy to tell with Allbaugh, because we already had a good system in place. He didn't just destroy everything the first day. We had good managers there, and so for a good while, things carried along.

And I think a lot of us were willing to say: "Well, different presidents do it different ways. OK, the guy's a political appointee. But at least if he's going to keep the system together and keep things going and fight for our budget, OK, that's no so bad." So we're willing to give the guy the benefit of the doubt and of course keep doing our jobs, because the system has been invented, and we can keep using it.

But then little by little, especially after 9/11, it seemed that the agency just began to deteriorate, and it wasn't getting fixed. We noticed, for example, we used to have three emergency support teams at FEMA headquarters. These were teams of people who would come in ... immediately, within a couple hours [after a disaster], to help manage and coordinate things from Washington until all the field operations could be set up. We'd spend about a week doing [that] here, and then the field operations would normally be set up.

Under Witt, this whole system was established where most everybody at FEMA, including myself, would have two jobs. You had your normal job, and then you had your team assignment -- red team, white team and blue team. Each team is on call one month and then off for two months, day shift and night shift. Twelve-hour shifts are staffed. This thing was staffed and set up so we could hit the ground running immediately after a disaster.

We did that for Oklahoma City. We did that for other disasters as well. And after 9/11, there were some reorganizations in the agency. And then all of a sudden, we were down to only two of these teams, which seemed to me like gee, we're kind of losing something here. What's going on? ...

At the point when FEMA is folded into the Department of Homeland Security, what was the consensus opinion within FEMA as to the merits of that decision?

I hate to try to speak for everybody. I can say what I thought and what some of my friends thought. We were skeptical. We were wondering about this. We wanted to make it work, because we knew that certainly the emergency rescue side has to coordinate with the law enforcement and intelligence side, or the law enforcement side anyway. We wanted to make it work. But shortly after things were coming together, we could see that it wasn't working very well, that there were some really strange things happening.

Like what?

I'll give you my favorite example. When the Homeland Security Act was passed, we were told to convert what was the Federal Response Plan into something called National Response Plan. Federal Response Plan was a plan put together under Witt's administration. It worked very well, a very succinct, fairly short document that explained what all the different government agencies did, what FEMA did, and what the roles were in a big disaster. ... You could pick it up in one hand. You could understand it. It was plain English.

So under Homeland Security, we're supposed to convert the Federal Response Plan into something called a National Response Plan, which would do more to address terrorism and do more for state governments or something. ... At the time, I worked in the office in FEMA which did federal response planning, ... and we began work in the fall of 2002 on doing this.

Within a few days of getting this assignment, suddenly we were told no, stop what you are doing. Secretary [Tom] Ridge -- and this is just what we're told -- Secretary Ridge is so concerned about this that he has to have somebody he really, really trusts in charge, so the whole thing's being given to the Transportation Security Administration. And we all said: "TSA does bags at the airports. Why are they writing a National Response Plan?"

... Lo and behold, in about a week's time, TSA says: "Well, we're kind of short-staffed. But as luck would have it, we happen to have this contract of several million dollars ready to spend with the such-and-such corporation."

... August of 2003, they reveal their grand scheme to the state and local government officials. The state and local government officials scream at them, throw it back and say, "This is a terrible plan." ... It's not well-written. I don't know what to say. They had a good plan that worked. They spent somewhere between I'm told between $3 [million] and $6 million to make it into a not-so-good plan that doesn't work real well. And we at FEMA just watched this happening.

Do you think this is indicative of the kind of disorganization, if you will, in trying to meld 22 different agencies into one?

What it looked like to us was that for whatever reasons, a well-run system was either on purpose or accidentally just being pulled apart and shredded, because our system wasn't perfect, but it worked pretty well. And when people are coming in and saying we're going to change this system, it seemed to be change for the sake of change. ...

When you saw Katrina mounting in its strength, given that [the National Situation Update] is a report that comes out every day, were you recognizing this was an unusual, extraordinary threat and making efforts to bring extra attention to it?

We were. Now, none of us can tell the future. I'm not a weather forecaster; I'm just a government worker there. But we could see that this weather system was not going away. We don't want to raise an alarm. We don't want to turn every time there's a windstorm in the ocean [and] tell everybody to abandon their homes and flee. We're not going to do that. Sometimes these windstorms will break up. Sometimes they'll diminish and go away.

So we're watching it. It went near Florida, and Florida did evacuations and did precautions and things, but it really only brushed the Florida Keys. But then it went into the Gulf of Mexico, and it didn't weaken, but it strengthened. And we knew from the weather reports that this year, the Gulf of Mexico water was at a higher temperature than it might normally be, and the hotter the water -- I'm not a scientist, but apparently this causes the hurricane to really build on strength.

We made sure that we put this very prominently in the very front of our reports, that this very dangerous hurricane was entering the Gulf of Mexico, and we'd put the maps on there, drew the lines going straight as an arrow toward New Orleans. Now, this report is not like writing a personal memo, a "Dear Mike" memo or something like that. It's a formal report. It had to follow certain formats. It gets posted on the Internet Web site. Anybody can read them, by the way. They're on fema.gov. ...

So has FEMA scrambled? What's happening internally as these warnings are being posted on the Web site?

What happened was we came up to what I would call the normal state of readiness for a normal hurricane. ... For example, ... Ophelia was more or less a normal hurricane. Very bad windstorm. I think it was a Force 1 or a Force 2 when it hit, and we all could see it was only going to be a Force 1 or a Force 2. It knocked down some houses; it blew some things around; it knocked down some trees and power lines. But it was not a killer hurricane.

Normally for those hurricanes, though, as a precaution, we will bring teams in 24/7, into the headquarters. We will station search teams, medical teams, commodities such as ice and water and emergency meals for feeding staff. We'll station truckloads of those things outside the danger zone, ready to go in as soon as a disaster is over. But we do that for all these storms.

With Katrina, though, it was different, because a 4 or a 5, none of us -- I'm not sure if I've ever worked there with a [Category] 4 [hurricane].

Andrew was a 5.

Was it a 5? OK, it didn't hit a populated area such as New Orleans was. But most hurricanes that come in are 1s or 2s, and they really aren't all that devastating.

Are you saying that you didn't have any extraordinary preparations for Katrina?

Yeah, that's exactly my point, is for Katrina we were staging ice and water; we were staging medical teams, staging search and rescue teams. But we weren't doing anything to get the other thousands of people out of the city ahead of the storm.

Well, was that your responsibility or Mayor Nagin's responsibility?

Well, you can see it's everyone's responsibility in the government to work together and make it happen. I wish the mayor would have done it. I wish the governor would have done it. ...

The point is that the federal government's role, at least to date in these large disasters, has been if there is some event happening that's beyond the capability of the system, an overwhelming disaster that the ordinary states and localities are having a hard time dealing with, or can't deal with, the federal government will step in and offer much larger types of assistance. ...

FEMA in my view should be coordinating. An event this size should be coordinated with Amtrak, buses, planes -- anything necessary to get people out of harm's way.

So what's happening inside the agency? What's happening as Katrina hits and there's this lull in response?

Not much.

What are you saying to your colleagues? What are you guys doing?

We're all looking at each other like, "Why aren't we getting to orders to move on this?"

I need to explain something here. We can't just on our own say, "Well, we're going to go and do this." We send the reports up to the bosses, the executives at FEMA and I guess the executives at Homeland Security. They analyze our reports. They read the reports over, and then they come back, and they issue an operations order. And they say: "OK, you're going to mobilize the medical team to standby. You're going to mobilize the search team to standby. You're going to mobilize ice and water to standby." And if those are all they tell us to do, we're implementers. We're not the leaders. ...

What are people saying to each other?

We're saying: "Oh my God. Why aren't we doing more? Why aren't we getting the orders? Why aren't we doing much? Why isn't this being treated like a real emergency?"

People were just lost. We couldn't understand -- why aren't we getting the operations orders? Why haven't the bosses decided to move the people out? And they hadn't. We'd sent them all the information they needed. Here's a [powerful] hurricane; here's all these thousands of people that don't have any way to get out of the city; and the bosses say, "Oh, OK, we'll put a couple of medical teams on standby."

Well, that's the before.

Afterwards ... what I can see from my view from sitting inside a windowless room at FEMA headquarters during my night shift is that we are working to coordinate with our federal partners to get the resources out, to get water out, to get food out, to get medical teams and search teams out the door and get them down there as much as possible.

Now, other than the media reports, I don't know what's happening at the other end. I'm not in Louisiana to see this. I've heard some terrible stories since that the stuff wasn't getting there. But we were working frantically to get it out.

Among your leadership at FEMA, what percentage of them are people with experience as emergency managers?

Well, the top leaders, none.

What percentage of the overall staff, [the whole agency] at FEMA has experience?

... Except for [Acting Undersecretary R. David] Paulison, I don't think any of them have any experience or knowledge whatever in emergency planning or emergency management.

Below that level at the professional levels, yeah, I'd say we've got a pretty solid core there, because a lot of us have worked there for 10 years or 20 years, and worked different disasters. So we do have pretty solid experience from the career management level on down, the GS15 level or so on down. But once you get above that into the political levels, it seems to taper off pretty quick. ...

But Brown had handled emergencies in Florida the year before.

Brown stood there in front of the cameras for emergencies. I'm not sure if he handled them. Brown allowed the system to work in Florida. And the system can work by itself to a certain degree, for a while.

Florida was four tough hurricanes in a row. But Florida was not a Category 4 or a Category 5 hitting --

It wasn't a Katrina.

Exactly, exactly. You can take four lesser shots like that and use the system, let the system work. There will be a few bumps; you'll waste some people; there will be a few grinds. But the system will basically work. It's not challenged.

So what does a situation like Katrina require from somebody like Brown?

Somebody who can handle things beyond automatic pilot. It's just like an airplane that's flying. Somebody told me those jetliners fly on automatic pilot when they're going across the ocean. Well, I guess that means I can get a new job tomorrow and be a jet pilot, right -- unless anything goes wrong or they really need somebody to know what he's doing. Then all of a sudden I can't.

I think Brown was just fine as long as things could go on automatic pilot. For the ordinary little floods, the ordinary hurricanes, we know what we're doing and can do the job. But when something would come along that's going to take a FEMA director who has the stature, let's say, to grab a hold of a state governor and big-city mayor and really bring them on board, and the stature to call the White House if need be and say, "Mr. President, I need to talk to the president in five minutes; we have to do something on this," he was just out of his depth.

How's morale at the agency now?

People are working hard for the disaster, and they're going on adrenaline. But the people I talk to are so disheartened by this. It's been a terrible disaster. People have incredible sympathy for the victims, because we're there to help the victims. But this is the first time I think in a long time when people I've worked with felt that they really couldn't say they're proud to work at FEMA right now.

... Our leadership has let us down. They certainly let the people of New Orleans and the people of America down in this deal. I'd say morale with the people I talked to, anybody who can get out the door is going to want to get out the door. ...

In this current crisis, did you see specific examples of DHS [Department of Homeland Security] bureaucracy interfering with FEMA's ability to respond to Katrina?

Definitely. I know this because I work in the Information and Planning Section. This happened last year during the Florida hurricanes and happened even worse this time. Our job in the Information and Planning is to get information that the operational managers need to run the disaster, meaning if someplace is short of ice or short of water, or if someplace says they need more emergency teams, or if the medical teams say, "Well, we have medical teams here, but they don't have any satellite phones; we don't have any vehicles to take them someplace," our job at FEMA at the headquarters here is to act quickly and get those resources to them and get things moving, and get the information to the decision makers to do those things.

Well, what's been happening, what happened especially in the early stages of Katrina, was at FEMA we were getting peppered with questions from Homeland Security. And at first we sort of took it in stride. There would be questions: "Well, where are the teams located? Send us a map. Do this, do this." OK, we'd get the information for them.

But the questions would become sometimes more and more detailed: "Well, what exact kind of work are these teams doing? Give us a description. Send us a whole position description of what they're doing." It's getting very bureaucratic, and it's interfering with our work. We're there on 12-hour shifts trying to get the things done for the operational people, and it's like our sleeve is being tugged every little two minutes. And we have to answer it because it's Homeland Security, and they require an answer with questions that clearly were much too detailed to have any operational significance to these people. They weren't going to do anything with the information.

What was this a result of?

I think it was a result of two things: Number one, the people at the Homeland Security Department who have never been involved in a disaster, in emergency before, and so they're just asking questions that would be a novice's question. They might be fine if you're attending a seminar sometime, but in the middle of a disaster isn't the time to say, "Send us a description of all the teams and what they do and what their authorizations are and a copy of your laws," and everything else.

You were asked these questions?

Yeah. We were asked these questions. ... If we didn't have the information at our fingertips, we, the FEMA people, were expected to go to these federal agencies [whose representatives come to FEMA during disasters] and to get them to contact the people in the field, who are out there in their rubber boots in helicopters and everything else and trying to do the rescues, and call them on their satellite phones and ask them, "Now, we know you're busy, but you can just sort of stop what you're doing for a while and give us these numbers, because we need to specify -- we said yesterday there were 312 rescues in such-and-such county, but now we're seeing it was 309. We need to clarify, was it 312 rescues or was it 309?" God, the people are out there trying to save lives. ...

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posted nov. 22, 2005

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