Hung Out to Dry by Underlings
The FEMA implosion
Oct. 25, 2005: Vol. 1, Issue No. 42
IN THE NEWS
WASHINGTON--The only FEMA employee to ride out Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans painted a grim portrait yesterday of an agency led by officials who were unprepared for the scope of the disaster and failed to respond to his increasingly desperate pleas for help.
"FEMA official: Agency was clueless on Katrina"
Los Angeles Times, Oct. 21, 2005
Like people the world over, I was appalled and sickened by what happened to the citizens of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Who was to blame?
Clearly this was a major tragedy of errors with plenty of blame to go around as local, state and federal officials dithered in a state of paralysis for days.
Initial media analysis tended to blame the Bush Administration for downsizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Bush appointed one of his campaign operatives, Joseph Allbaugh, to replace Clinton appointee James Lee Witt as head of FEMA. On May 15, 2001, Allbaugh told a Senate subcommittee:
Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management. Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.
The publication of the internal FEMA e-mail exchanges during the Katrina nightmare reveals a corporate culture so mired in sycophantic bureaucracy and rife with internecine bickering and politics that the agency could not have functioned even if it had a budget the size of the Pentagon's.
The FEMA E-mails
From 1991 to 2000, Michael DeWayne Brown, an Oklahoma lawyer, worked at the International Arabian Horse Association as commissioner of judges and stewards. Amid a controversy, he was ousted in 2000. When his friend from Oklahoma, Joseph Allbaugh, became head of FEMA in 2001, Brown went along as general counsel.
In February 2003, President Bush named Brown director of FEMA with the formal title of undersecretary for emergency preparedness and response in the Department of Homeland Security.
When the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina became apparent on August 30, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff appointed Brown to be the on-site disaster coordinator.
Here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Brown to make a real difference in the lives of thousands and to go down in history as the crusading savior of the huddled and battered masses in teeming New Orleans.
That was not how the appointment was perceived at FEMA.
Two hours after the announcement--just before 11:00 p.m. on Aug. 30 the following e-mail exchange occurred between FEMA Press Secretary Sharon Worthy and Michael Brown:
Demote the Under Sec to PFO [Principal Federal Officer]? What about the precedent being set? What does this say about executive management and leadership in the Agency?
It gets worse.
New England Regional Director Marty Bahamonde was the only FEMA representative on the ground in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit.
Read this e-mail exchange:
Marty Bahamonde to Michael Brown:
Wednesday, Aug. 31, 11:20 a.m.
Sir, I know that you know the situation is past critical. Here some things you might not know.
Hotels are kicking people out, thousands gathering in the streets with no food or water. Hundreds still being rescued from homes.
The dying patients at the DMAT [Disaster Medical Assistance Team] tent being medivac [sic]. Estimates are many will die within hours. Evacuation in process. Plans developing for dome evacuation but hotel situation adding to the problem. We are out of food and running out of water at the dome, plans in works to address critical need.
Another e-mail exchange:
Sharon Worthy to Cindy Taylor, FEMA deputy director of public affairs, and to others:
Aug. 31, 2 p.m.
Also, it is very important that time is allowed for Mr. Brown to eat dinner.
Gievn [sic] that Baton Rouge is back to normal, restaurants are getting busy. He needs much more that [sic] 20 or 30 minutes. We now have traffic to encounter to get to and from a location of his choise [sic], followed by wait service from the restaurant staff, eating, etc.
Marty Bahamonde to a Co-worker:
OH MY GOD!!!!!!! I just ate an MRE [military Meal-Ready-to-Eat] and crapped in the hallway of the Superdome along with 30,000 other close friends so I understand her concern about busy restaurants.
Takeaway Points to Consider
- If handed a task with huge responsibilities that would bring international recognition, would you view it as an opportunity or a demotion?
- After dashing off an e-mail--but before clicking on "Send"--you might reflect for a moment on the consequences of your message appearing on the front page of every newspaper in the world.
- The media love to play "GOTCHA!"
- Does everybody in your organization--from the mail room and the loading dock to the executive suite--pride themselves as being part of a can-do corporate culture?
- Recall the anecdote about Harvey Mackay of Mackay Envelope Co., in Vol. 1, Issue No. 10 of this publication. Once asked how many sales people Mackay Envelope has, Mackay said that he had 600. "Six hundred sales people!" the person exclaimed. "I cannot believe that. How many employees do you have?" Mackay replied, "Six hundred."
Letters to the Editor
These letters were written in response to "The Fine Art of Redlining," which was published on Oct. 18, 2005:
In the late 1960s one of the groups on the "deadbeat list" was frat houses who had lots of law students. The law students knew they wouldn't be sued for stealing a few hundred dollars worth of records or books. This was before ZIP codes but the addresses of the houses were on file.
You used redlining examples of real estate agents who excluded people by race status alone. That you made this statement without comment and used it as an analogy for redlining people who regularly return stock items saddened me. Also, I doubt the rare "slum" neighborhood person who happened to get the coupon for books from The New York Times would break the back of the book company if she never ordered again. I understand not publishing offers in "slum" newspapers ...but whoever was reading The New York Times, should have the respect to be treated like other readers of the paper. Profits are important ... though not at any cost.
This letter was written in response to "Michelle Wie for President," which was published on Oct. 13, 2005:
A follow-up to your comments on Michelle Wie ... a pillow shown in the Stash Tea Catalog that just came in reads, "A woman is like a tea bag ... you never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water," -- Eleanor Roosevelt. By the way, if you are not familiar with it, the Stash Tea Catalog is wonderful, and has that "fetching quality" to it, as does the L.L.Bean catalog. You just gotta go through it when it comes in, and you usually end up buying something from it.
Note: At the Samsung World Championship Sports Illustrated senior writer Mike Bamberger noticed that Michelle Wie--after an unplayable lie--inadvertently might have dropped her ball a few inches closer to the hole and failed to penalize herself one stroke. After waiting 24 hours, Bamberger played "GOTCHA!" and reported the infraction. Wie was disqualified from her first tournament as a pro and forfeited her fourth-place winnings of $53,126.
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Michael DeWayne Brown