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News :: Human Rights
It's a lot deeper than FEMA
06 Sep 2005
The Bush administration and its point man, Chertoff, have a reactionary, racist, anti-poor political and ideological position. This is what explains the willful lack of preparation for the disaster.
It’s a lot deeper than FEMA

By Fred Goldstein

The big business media are howling for the head of Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for gross incompetence in bungling the preparedness and rescue mission in the New Orleans disaster.

Brown should certainly be in jail for murderous and racist criminal neglect. But there are numerous others who belong there along with him, starting with President George W. Bush and his head of the Department of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff.

In this disaster, FEMA has shown utter negligence, in addition to disorganization, lack of communication, confusion and general all-around incompetence. But the stage was set for this long ago. On the scale of culprits, Brown, the hapless fool in the spotlight, is way down on the list.

The political climate for the disaster can be laid at the foot of Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and all the others in the Bush administration who have championed the phony "war on terrorism." It is under this slogan that Bush had promoted the war in Afghanistan, the war and occupation in Iraq, the repressive, racist Patriot Act and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

‘Homeland security’ takes over

In March 2003, with great fanfare, the DHS was created and absorbed 22 federal agencies and 180,000 employees. Its budget started out around $15 billion and has increased every year. It was $30 billion in 2005. FEMA was one of the agencies taken over.

FEMA had been the only federal agency charged with the responsibility to try to prevent, plan for and reduce the effects of natural disasters. It was also charged with dealing with the aftermath of disasters, including providing damage insurance. It had a cabinet-level status.

As soon as it was put under the DHS, its budget and its status were reduced. From then on, the so-called "war on terrorism" pushed everything aside and cut back on all constructive activities of the agencies that came under the DHS.

The Miami Herald of Sept. 3 wrote: "The Federal Emergency Management Agency, once a powerful independent agency focused solely on responding to earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and other natural disasters that occur on average about four times a month, was placed within the huge Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Homeland Security sends $1.1 billion each year to the states to combat terrorism, but $180 million to help prepare for such disasters as Katrina. Much of the terrorism grant money is given under the conditions that specifically exclude spending it on items or personnel that would be used in responding to hazards other than terrorism."

This is a clear attempt to stop any attempt to use the money for natural disasters.

The Herald quoted George Haddow, former FEMA deputy chief of staff: "There are no emergency managers at any level in the Department of Homeland Security. It’s all law enforcement."

Trina Sheet, executive director of the National Emergency Management Association, told the Herald: "Every state and community has warehouses of haz-mat [hazardous material] suits, personal protection equipment, bomb detectors, bomb diffusers, radiological detectors. … But we´ve also got local officials where their emergency operations center is an office and a fax machine.’ "

Michael Brown has been on television making a fool of himself. He told CNN´s Paula Zahn on Thursday Sept. 1 that "the federal government did not know about the convention center people until today." That was several days after a world-wide audience of hundreds of millions had watched in horror as 15,000 African American men, women and children desperate for food, water and transportation were totally abandoned by the authorities.

He also told the CBS Early Show that he knew there were “pockets of people’ who had not received the basics but that “we have the supplies.’

Brown has been attacked from pillar to post for these stunning demonstrations of incompetence and ignorance—which also reveal the racism of the authorities. But the real power behind destroying FEMA's effectiveness in preparing for disasters is Chertoff.

Chertoff is behind Brown's incompetence

In July of 2005 Chertoff announced his long-awaited "review" of the DHS. After the review, his main move was to further demote and disempower FEMA. Shaun Waterman of the United Press International wrote about this reorganization on July 12:

"The change that drew most attention as the country braces itself for the annual hurricane season is that the department’s Emergency Preparedness and Response is being dismantled." FEMA, the agency "that currently makes up the bulk of the directorate," was demoted and has "a director, rather than an undersecretary, reporting straight to Chertoff."

And, "in a move that is most likely to draw howls of protest from state and local emergency managers and FEMA’s allies on Capitol Hill, the agency is being stripped of its preparedness functions." A former official explained, "Preparedness is what you do all year round to get ready for hurricane and fire seasons."

The policy of reducing natural disaster preparedness was reflected in the refusal of funds to complete a FEMA project specifically designed to prepare for a hurricane disaster in New Orleans.

FEMA had begun to carry out Project Pam. This project simulated a level 5 hurricane. Level 5 Hurricane Ivan just missed New Orleans last year. FEMA hired a private firm to do a $250,000 study of the problems involved. But additional funds requested for a follow-up study on how to solve the problems were denied.

Brown, a former lawyer for the Arabian Horse Association, is a corrupt buffoon. He gave $30 million in insurance to Miami-Dade residents who suffered some rain during a hurricane that hit 100 miles away, while he left residents from other areas, who actually suffered, without funds.

But the person in charge of the operation in New Orleans, with responsibility for starving New Orleans of preparatory funds, is Bush´s man Chertoff. Brown is his flunky. In fact, the racist insensitivity of the Bush administration is illustrated by the fact that Chertoff did not even intervene in the crisis until Wednesday afternoon. This was two-and-a-half days after the people had been left on their own to suffer the ravages of the flood.

It was not until then that he appointed Brown to be in charge of the operation in the region. And it was not until then that he activated the National Response Plan to deal with the crisis. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, had already died, and tense of thousands were traumatized. Tens of thousands had still not been evacuated from the watery filth.

Even after Chertoff said the plan was implemented, the presence that the people felt was mostly that of armed troops. Food came slowly and evacuation even more slowly. It is still incomplete. People watched the evacuation of the private Tulane Hospital while 200 critical-care patients across the street in the largest public hospital for poor, Charity Hospital, were without food, medicine, electricity or water. People were dying as reporters watched.

The Bush administration and its point man, Chertoff, have a reactionary, racist, anti-poor political and ideological position. This is what explains the willful lack of preparation for the disaster. It explains the deliberate delay in bringing even the most minimal aid to the people. And it explains the militaristic and police reaction to masses of people who have been subjected to a profoundly traumatic ordeal inflicted on them by criminal neglect and capitalist greed.

-- 30 --

Union labor donated
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