Disaster from Design

From Scout:

As Steve Soto from Left Coaster says, there is a very good discussion going on. Steve points to this DailyKos diary entitled “George Bush is Not Incompetent,” written by associates of the Rockridge Institute, and sums up the discussion topic…..

Simply put, in evaluating the wreckage of what the Bush Administration has done here at home and overseas, are these perceived failures the result of incompetence, or actually by design? Does the Administration allow and steer critics to a default position of attacking the competence of this crew to avoid the real story, which is that the cabal maintains a malignant view of the role and benefit of government to begin with?

3 examples are examined in the discussion one of which is Katrina. Specifically was the terrible Katrina response due to design vis-a-vis conservative policies and goals of shrinking government or the result of mismanagement and incompetence within government agencies such as FEMA? I think it is an important discussion for the reason concluded in the Kos diary…

Incompetence obscures the real issue. Bush’s conservative philosophy is what has damaged this country and it is his philosophy of conservatism that must be rejected, whoever endorses it.

I have thought the Katrina response was ultimately a matter of design for some time which a more in-depth examination of what happened to FEMA under the Bush administration would illustrate. Had people paid attention prior to Katrina or not focused on the Bush administration’s incompetence post Katrina, then the information in a 2004 article, in Gambit Weekly, entitled “A Disaster Waiting to Happen” may have have informed us by now that the Katrina response debacle was no mistake. (all quotes below are from this article which I highly recommend reading)

(Coninues…Click Read More)

From Scout:

Though the placement of FEMA within the Department of Homeland Security has been cited as detrimental to the agency’s ability to respond to disasters there were changes under foot long before this. They occurred almost immediately upon the Bush administration taking office and reflected the conservative philosophy and agenda of shrinking the government, relying on individual initiative and the free market. In the case of FEMA this can be seen in 2 areas: 1) change in the agency’s purpose and direction, i.e. Mitigation and 2) the privatization of disaster response.


Mitigation is working with communities to take preventative measures to lessen the impact of disasters and it had been the “cornerstone of emergency management” according to FEMA prior to Bush. Just a few examples of mitigation included retrofitting structures to withstand floods or earthquakes or relocate communities in wildfire zones. Mitigation can decrease loss of life and property damage in disasters. It is also cost effective as “according to FEMA estimates, every dollar spent on mitigation saves roughly two dollars in disaster recovery costs.” Project Impact, established in 1997, had been FEMA’s “most high profile mitigation program.“ Approximately 250 communities had signed on to the project just prior to Bush becoming president.

However in February 2001 Bush proposed cutting Project Impact and the Congress approved it. The program was gone and in its place Bush proposed a new program of mitigation grants “awarded on a competitive basis.” Further in 2003 Bush proposed cutting the grant award formula in half and Congress approved. These moves were the classic shrinking of government and resulted in shifting the burden to states and communities not able to handle it or compete…

The administration also argues that its new pre-disaster mitigation grants, which are awarded on a competitive basis, will help states pick up the slack. But again, emergency managers say it’s not enough. In recent congressional testimony, a NEMA representative noted that “in a purely competitive grant program, lower income communities, those most often at risk to natural disaster, will not effectively compete with more prosperous cities Š . The prevention of repetitive damages caused by disasters would go largely unprepared in less-affluent and smaller communities.”

And indeed, some in-need areas have been inexplicably left out of the program. “In a sense, Louisiana is the floodplain of the nation,” noted a 2002 FEMA report. “Louisiana waterways drain two thirds of the continental United States. Precipitation in New York, the Dakotas, even Idaho and the Province of Alberta, finds its way to Louisiana’s coastline.” As a result, flooding is a constant threat, and the state has an estimated 18,000 buildings that have been repeatedly been damaged by flood waters — the highest number of any state. And yet, this summer FEMA denied Louisiana communities’ pre-disaster mitigation funding requests.

One is only left to wonder how many buildings may have been able to withstand Katrina had FEMA’s Project Impact not been terminated 4 years earlier or even if Louisiana had not been denied subsequent mitigation grants. Further a mitigation program of old is just what is needed now as the Gulf Coast rebuilds. It would go a long way to assuage the concerns of Americans who ask why rebuild at all if they were to know rebuilding was being conducted according to a Project Impact plan mitigating possible future disasters.


A philosophy of privatizing disaster response occurred almost immediately within the Bush administration.…

The White House quickly launched a government-wide effort to privatize public services, including key elements of disaster management. Bush’s first budget director, Mitch Daniels, spelled out the philosophy in remarks at an April 2001 conference: “The general idea — that the business of government is not to provide services, but to make sure that they are provided — seems self-evident to me,” he said.

In a May 15, 2001, appearance before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Allbaugh signaled that the new, stripped-down approach would be applied at FEMA as well. “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,” he said. “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.”

The consequences were disastrous not only for FEMA but the country and its occurrence should be weighed and considered as people bemoan recent revelations of waste and fraud attributed to FEMA post Katrina……

As a result, says a disaster program administrator who insists on anonymity, “We have to compete for our jobs — we have to prove that we can do it cheaper than a contractor.” And when it comes to handling disasters, the FEMA employee stresses, cheaper is not necessarily better, and the new outsourcing requirements sometimes slow the agency’s operations.

William Waugh, a disaster expert at Georgia State University who has written training programs for FEMA, warns that the rise of a “consultant culture” has not served emergency programs well. “It’s part of a widespread problem of government contracting out capabilities,” he says. “Pretty soon governments can’t do things because they’ve given up those capabilities to the private sector. And private corporations don’t necessarily maintain those capabilities.”

This privatization of disaster response illustrates the move under Bush to the conservative philosophy and agenda of shrinking the government and relying on the free market. Another aspect of this that weakened FEMA is illustrated in the loss of employees in part as a result of shrinking FEMA’s role and widening the private sector’s. Many skilled FEMA veterans became disillusioned at what was occurring in the agency and left for more lucrative private sector jobs. To make matters worse now the government would pay more for their expertise. Bad for government and citizens paying taxes but good for the private sector….

The irony, disaster researcher Claire Rubin says, is that FEMA will now have to hire former employees like Zensinger as contractors. “Now, frankly, the senior brains and the people with 20, 30 years of operational experience, there’s more of them in the private sector than there are at FEMA. It’s a significant shift. If the government’s going to get smaller and the catastrophes keep getting bigger, the net effect will be to outsource what you need. It might be cheaper, it might be more expensive, but it’s not a great way to run this part of government.” Following the current spate of hurricanes, she predicts, “you will see FEMA contracts flying left and right so they can get these people back who know how to do this stuff.”

Of course such pre-Katrina warnings of experts would be a topic of concerned discourse I believe if we were focused not on the Incompetence of the Bush administration but rather its systematic implementation of the conservative agenda. The early narrative of Katrina became the incompetence and that is where it has remained. There has not been a shift to focus on the many Bush’s actions to implement the conservative agenda in the years prior to Katrina, actions which lead to the FEMA response debacle. What happened with Katrina was no mistake. And worse….be assured it will happen again unless we do not fully engage in the discussion on this new design of government with a track record of costly (in lives and treasure) consequences. Americans need to ask and answer…Is this the government you want?

Democrats should put that question to the American people and not frame our future on Bush’s incompetence. That is nibbling at the edges when we need someone to strike at the heart of the matter. Otherwise the next election will just be a slugfest to be won or lost on the claim of “I can do better.” The real question is better at what?