By Leigh Saavedra
(formerly writing as Lisa Walsh Thomas)
From the June 18, 2004 (New Orleans) Times-Picayune:
"The system is in great shape, but the levees are sinking. Everything is
sinking, and if we don't get the money fast enough to raise them, then
we can't stay ahead of the settlement... The problem that we have isn't
that the levee is low, but that the federal funds have dried up so that
we can't raise them." (Al Naomi, project manager, U.S. Army Corps of
The primary image of 9-11 in its aftermath seemed to be one of American
unity, with George Bush standing tall atop a Manhattan mound of debris, his
arm around a NYC firefighter. It looked impressive, showing the vulnerable,
human side of the strongest nation in the history of the world. It showed a
tireless, caring leader down to his shirtsleeves, right in there ready to
pick up a shovel himself and go on with the search for any possible last
It was a photo, though, just a well-staged photo from which unfathomable
political mileage was won. Madison Fifth Avenue couldn't have done better.
And under the hysteria of patriotic fervor and often-blind nationalism,
there were and are rumblings of mistakes, ineptitude, some before the attack
on the Twin Towers, some afterwards, and more now than at any time in the
past five years. Just ONE of these alleged mistakes is how the nation's
emergency relief system was overhauled.
As a giant of a department that combined 22 separate federal agencies to
protect the United States from terrorism, the DHS (Department of Homeland
Security) was formed just nine weeks after 9-11. Those people who wanted
government small enough to drown in a bathtub instead grew it, designing a
giant, and one might have wondered if it would be like Leonardo di Vinci's
wings for human flight, an interesting idea but too heavy to be viable.
Such caution, however, had no place during those weeks when Bush could have
anything he wanted, whether it was a controversial UN ambassador's
confirmation or extraordinary executive powers. It was political suicide to
go against a man who claimed to speak directly to God at a time of
heretofore unmatched crisis. As we now know, he and those for whom he speaks
were given the keys to the city vaults. To have hesitated, we were told,
would have been unpatriotic, even treasonous.
In the process of developing the new Homeland Security Department, FEMA
(Federal Emergency Management Agency) was demoted from a cabinet-level
position to a subordinate of the new DHS, which was packed with huge chunks
of government all united (somewhat) to focus on only one danger, terrorism.
While FEMA had once been considered an efficient branch of the country's
protective apparatus, when it became subordinate to the DHS it lost power,
talent, and resources. Probably worse, it was weakened enough so that the
appointment of its leader called for no serious scrutiny, was instead wide
open to political payback.
FEMA was always meant to be the agency ready to handle disasters such as
Katrina. In the very words of FEMA's own website, the agency "is tasked with
responding to, planning for, recovering from and mitigating against
disasters." As billions of dollars were poured into purported preparation
for terrorist attacks, however, we took the muscle from an agency qualified
to handle a non-terrorist emergency. Further, there is no evidence that
anyone, the young DHS or the weakened FEMA, can handle a terrorist
emergency. What has ensued is muggy bureaucracy interlaced with cronyism and
lack of oversight; in short, a huge bungled mess with its spokespeople
scurrying to blame anyone lower on the totem pole, seemingly oblivious to
the thousands of lives destroyed when even one of their branches is
Earlier in 2001, before 9-11, George Bush had appointed Joe Albaugh as head
of FEMA. Albaugh's qualifications for such a vital role did not far surpass
his having been George Bush's former campaign manager, and his interest in
the organization was described when he characterized it as an oversized
entitlement program, and counseled states and cities to rely instead on
faith-based organizations like the Salvation Army and the Mennonites
Then after Albaugh came Mike ("Brownie") Brown, selected by Joe Albaugh.
More bungling. Not only did Brown have no greater qualification than having
been Albaugh's college roommate but it was discovered after the Katrina
tragedy that Brown's resume appears to have been padded.
If I apply for a job at a school, my teaching credentials will be checked.
If I seek work as a fry cook, someone is either going to watch me flip a
burger to see if I know how, or they are going to teach me. So we put in
charge of disaster relief for our entire nation a man whose credentials were
apparently of no importance?
The results of FEMA's paralysis are by now well known. Aid from the Red
Cross was turned away; a nearby naval ship with a 600-bed hospital was
ignored; experienced firefighters and supply-laden trucks from Wal-Mart were
turned back. The skeptical need only go to the FEMA website to read the
agency's post-Katrina statement asking "all fire and emergency services
departments not to respond to counties and states affected by Hurricane
Katrina without being requested and lawfully dispatched by state and local
authorities..." The screeching-halt approach was being enforced while people
were dying for lack of water and food.
No one appeared to be certain who had the authority to do what. It was as if
they were all waiting for John Wayne to appear. The rudder was broken; the
sails had been left in port; we had no captain, not even someone who
remotely looked like the captain.
With blame being passed around as fast as a hot potato in a children's game,
the "credit" for putting an unqualified man in charge of facing disasters is
given to Joe Albaugh. Albaugh may have influenced the decision, probably
did, but it was George Bush who nominated Brown for first Under Secretary of
"Emergency Preparedness and Response" for the DHS in January 2003. There is
notT a thick wall between George Bush and the man to whom he would later pat
on the back and say, "Brownie, you're doing heck of a job" in New Orleans on
the same day when stranded, desperate people were drowning. The fact that
Brown was removed from site-work for three days and returned to Washington
before finally resigning does nothing to alter the kind of judgment George
Bush displayed not only when he first nominated Brown for a responsible
position but also when he commended him on national TV for doing a "heck of
Enough papers have been written about the criminally feeble performance we
saw from FEMA when Katrina struck. And after Katrina struck. And when
the levees broke. And after the levees broke. The best defense FEMA
apologists have come up with seems to indicate that the mayor of New Orleans
should have stuck a finger in the dike and waited for Washington to
determine just who was responsible for these thousands of people who, for
various reasons, had not left or could not leave New Orleans.
Backing up, almost five years of domestic bungling, up until people started
drowning on the streets of New Orleans, was overshadowed by the endless
errors and lies involved in the attempt to conquer the Mideast via Iraq.
Until Katrina diverted attention from Baghdad, the truth was eking out
blood-from-turnips style, but coming nevertheless. By the time Katrina was
born we knew we'd been lied to about weapons of mass destruction and about
Iraq's attempt to buy nuclear components in Africa, but the blame never had
been settled. Spokespeople for the administration were still trying to leave
us with the impression that Iraq was involved in 9-11. The last-resort
conclusion was that whoever had caused the White House to believe we were in
danger from mushroom clouds and silos of nerve gas in Fallujah, it wasn't
anyone who spent any time in the White House. The administration had
received wrong information. The white gloves of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and
the PNAC crowd were impeccable, soiled by not a speck of dust.
And by the time people began sorting through the accused on that front, we
were so caught up in "liberating" Iraq (never mind that we'd already bought
Saddam's capture and killed his sons, and 14-year old grandson) that surely
it would be a greater blunder to tuck tail and leave Iraq to Iraqis than to
try to finish "them" off, no one being absolutely certain to whom "them"
Besides, we needed desperately to turn a corner. We were suddenly in a
situation where blunders were being noted and analyzed, internationally,
from the time Al Gore's written suggestions to secure cockpit doors was
ignored to the growing number of jobs lost despite large tax cuts to the
wealthy. This was an administration who never had quite understood that
trickle-down doesn't work, that if you try it twice and it doesn't work, it
probably won't work a third time either. But never mind, because in the
attempts to keep trying, that upper five percent rocked! In the total
picture, it was beginning to look as if the strongest nation in world
history couldn't find competent hall monitors.
Thus entered Katrina. There aren't many who seriously believe that man can
yet truly control weather even with the possibility or likelihood that
storms are exacerbated by global warming, a science George Bush doesn't put
much stock in, but it was only a matter of hours before people began to
realize that it wasn't Katrina herself who was the real killer. It was those
pesky levees that the Times-Picayune of New Orleans had warned us about over
and over. Then it turned out that the Army Corps of Engineers had been
issuing the same warnings. But it would take money to repair the dikes. And
more money to save the wetlands, nature's sponge for excess water, which had
sunk primarily as a result of heavy drilling that had made the oil people,
the Bush/Cheney/Condi people, very rich. The Army Corps of Engineers
estimated that 14 billion over ten years would protect the city and
But the money wasn't there. It was over in the Mideast along with a third of
Louisiana's National Guard. More bungling. Our own defenses were down in
more than one way. And to compensate, we had to crawl through red tape that
had New Orleans sealed off too tightly for independent truckloads of food
and water to reach the survivors.
Bush apologists were quick to blame Governor Blanco and New Orleans' mayor,
Ray Nagin. Both the Washington Post and Newsweek lamented that Blanco had
not declared a state of emergency, which would have allowed Washington to
come charging in like the cavalry. Except that even the reporting was
bungled. The governor had declared a state of emergency on August 26.
(The Post has since issued a retraction.) Loud and clear was the plea; and
on Saturday, August 27, Bush himself, whether or not he was aware of it,
declared a state of emergency. Both declarations opened all doors for any
leader at the national level who wanted to stop thumbing through legal
documents or strumming guitars or speaking at fundraisers to march forward
and set wheels in immediate motion.
And yet, three days passed before the U.S. military started to move ships
and helicopters to the region. By then the levees were breached and eighty
percent of New Orleans was flooded.
Those at the top finally spoke out, telling us this was no time to point
fingers. But this time the grumblings from the public didn't subside
noticeably. After standing by Michael Brown ("Brownie") as is his wont, when
the roar of complaints grew, Bush caved and removed Brown from his on-site
responsibilities, replacing him with the experienced Vice-Admiral Thad W.
Allen of the Coast Guard. It appeared for a nano-second to be a good
old-fashioned case of the slacker getting axed. But no, all the sudden
change meant at the moment was that Mike Brown had been removed from the
stench, heat and decay of New Orleans back to D.C., where he claimed to be
going for "a good Mexican meal and a stiff margarita." The outcry against
FEMA and its chief's incompetence demanded that Bush put a qualified person
in charge of efforts this time.
As Brown packed up and headed back to Washington, Secretary Michael Chertoff
(DHS) portrayed the decision to bring in the Vice-Admiral as a shift of
phase in the relief effort, from emergency response to longer-term crisis
management (according to the New York Times). There was no indication that
either Chertoff or Bush had any problem with Brown maintaining his post as
chief. But many, including a large number of Democrats, demanded that Brown
be fired outright. The "replacement" was again a too-little-too-late
response to public demands, and on September 12, Brown turned in his
It's important to remember that until his resignation, despite Vice-Admiral
Allen's covering for him on the site, and despite many tv viewers'
misconception that he had been fired, Michael Brown remained the Head of
If public outcry had gone silent and had Hurricane Ophelia developed into a
Class 5 hurricane and struck the Carolinas, the people hit would have had
"Brownie" at the helm. But public outcry did win, as it should,
and as soon as Brown's resignation was accepted, the head position of FEMA
was filled by R. David Paulison, A FEMA official with three decades'
experience in emergency work. One would have been justified to look at the
beleaguered agency Monday afternoon and say, "You've come a long way, Baby."
But by then, those who would die from one of the biggest bungled jobs in
U.S. history were already dead.
Were it not for the suffering and deaths, the near-absurd theatrics involved
in finding scapegoats would be slapstick. There are not/cannot be a great
wealth of people holding FEMA blameless. But it appears that the White House
was ready to stop there, almost as if giving Mike Brown a bit of time off
before he had even clocked in was acknowledging that maybe FEMA just hadn't
been quite up to the job, so now that was taken care of and there was no
need for an investigation...
Yes, it happened that way. The first demands for a probe into just what went
wrong were resisted by Bush, just as he had resisted the 9-11 commission.
Finally, he announced that he himself would head a commission to look into
and see "what went right and what went wrong."
It will not take any commission very long to come up with what went right;
the list is short. As for what went wrong, with the White House heading the
investigation, we can be pretty certain that the highest the blame will ever
reach might be Homeland Security's Michael Chertoff, who is arguing
as this is being written that no one predicted a disaster like Katrina.
While I would not want to be so impolite as to suggest that Mr. Chertoff is
lying in old-fashioned CYA style, I would suggest that Mr. Rove or a
representative apprise him of a history of warnings and cries for help. In
fact, officials, scientists, and journalists have warned of just such a
scenario for years. In National Geographic's June, 2004 issue, a what-if
story is written up, giving us a nightmare surprisingly close to what
happened when Katrina struck. It was this awareness that caused one official
from the Army Corps to say that it was not a matter of "if" but of "when."
Within a period of two years, the Times-Picayune warned us of what was to
come nine different times.
Mr. Chertoff is in like company in his refusal to accept any blame, though
he surely knew that in heading a department as large as Homeland Security,
he was assuming responsibility for the agencies, such as FEMA, that make it
up. Chiefs and kings and heads of households are understood to be
accountable for the actions of those they supervise. Or so we thought until
recently, when this administration put new elements into the old Teflon that
worked so well for Ronald Reagan. Nothing that happens under these
people is ever the fault of those at the top. There is always an excuse, and
no one in the higher echelons is ever called to account.
Oh, there was the gesture. Just enough to make a few accusers back off.
Under great pressure for so many days, Bush did say on Monday, "And to the
extent that the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take
responsibility." Perhaps even such a watered-down acknowledgement is an
improvement over total denial of being anywhere near the cookie jar.
I think of Harry Truman of "the-buck-stops-here" fame. But Harry was from
another era, and in that day the boomerang buck hadn't been discovered. As
if by magic, those on the lower level pass the buck, even knowing that it
will make a u-turn and come back at them, unless they can find someone on an
even lower run who will catch it. These are the people, I suspect, who first
advised their kids to tell their teachers that the dog ate their homework.
The seriousness of the growing lack of accountability is its subtle
acceptance of continued bungling. A friend wrote to me a few days ago, "We
lost two major buildings under Bush's first term. Now we've lost a major
port and city under his second." I wondered then if we should make a list,
should count in three million lost jobs, vast amounts of clean air, lakes,
rivers and pristine wilderness, nineteen hundred American soldiers,
uncounted thousands of Iraqis, millions of square miles contaminated,
possibly destroyed, by depleted uranium, complete loss of global respect,
and thousands of deaths at home due to a lack of national health care for
the 40 million without insurance.
For now we have all this to sort through, not just for history but for
tomorrow morning. A group of people has been given free pass for five years
to steal and kill and lay waste to whatever they wanted. They have been able
to stick a black hat on regulation and join their corporate constituency in
a thumbs-down to our environment. They have been able to begin wars based on
false information, to cut social programs for our most desperate citizens,
all the while continually cutting taxes, as if the country could afford to
conquer the world and have world-class highways on the income from the post
office. Half the country has been in denial, either through stubbornness or
ignorance or the illusion of self-interest. It is up to the other half of us
to convince them that ignorance kills. It is up to the other half of us to
shake them awake and make them understand that while bodies were being taken
from New Orleans to a large warehouse in San Gabriel to be processed, the
Republican National Committee was sending out letters urging their
constituency to demand a repeal of the so-called "death" tax, which is a
method of seeing that multimillionaires have to pay taxes on estates that
only two percent of the population will inherit. It is up to the other half
of us to make them wonder why that two percent should not pay on the top
slice of their inheritance when the defense programs designed to protect us
from natural disasters cannot get their promised funding.
Meanwhile if tectonic plates beneath the San Andreas fault should shift
heavily, if the big one should decide its time has come, if California
should erupt into the greatest natural disaster in the history of our
nation, we might handle it. Or we might not. Based on our success record of
the last five years, from losing jobs at a frightening rate to our inability
to find Osama bin Laden to saving New Orleans, there's no way at this point
to be certain. We do know that had the public remained uninvolved in what
was going on in Katrina's aftermath, such a scenario would have left
thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of lives in the hands of a man chosen
initially by George Bush, a man who had lied in his resume and been
completely in the dark when presented with his first big task.
Whether, in the above scenario, the funds would be available is another
unknown. The surplus that took so many years in building has long been gone.
The pot is empty. And regardless of the number of bungled jobs of the past
five years, what's slowly coming to the surface right now is the neocons'
wish to build bigger, better, and more nuclear weapons, to make the tax cuts
for the rich permanent, to give Bush supporters like Halliburton the no-bid
contracts to clean up our messes at whatever it costs, and to do away with
the estate tax.
Yes, FEMA is now in better hands, but the transfer of power in that case was
the direct result of public outrage and demand, sometimes a short-lived
savior. If comedy is a necessary relief, we might heed the admonition Bill
Maher recently gave to George Bush: "On your watch we've lost the surplus,
almost all our allies, four airlines, two trade centers, a piece of the
Pentagon, and now the City of New Orleans." And Bill didn't even talk about
the losses accompanying our invasion and occupation of Iraq, the war on
which Bush was fixated long before we had a reason, real or imagined.
One step at a time. An inept FEMA director has been replaced by an
experienced one. People have been awakened from their long slumber. Perhaps
we're getting there.
But meanwhile, the real power, domestic financial power and
nuclear-decision-making power still lies in the hands of the man who was
four days late to the disaster, who was taking a guitar lesson while people
in New Orleans nursing homes choked to death under water, a man who came to
us with questionable credentials himself, one who was content to leave the
safety of a major port and its half million people with another man whose
resume he forgot to examine.
Leigh Saavedra has written poetry, fiction, and political essays for many
years under the name "Lisa Walsh Thomas." Under Thomas, Leigh has published
two books, the latter, "The Girl with Yellow Flowers in her Hair," being
available at http://www.whatIdidinthewar.com. She welcomes comments at