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FEMA Director during Katrina: How Prepared Are We for Disaster

Image via NBC News

“When you think about what we have here—FedEx, UPS, Red Cross, Salvation Army, Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club—you’ve got all of these places that have networks that can be used to do distribution…I truly see the private sector as part of the first responder network.”

As FEMA director when Hurricane Katrina struck, Michael D. Brown is no stranger to natural disasters. He’s since used his experience to carve out a life beyond the federal government and write a book about his time as director during Katrina titled Deadly Indifference: The Perfect Political Storm: Hurricane Katrina, The Bush White House, and Beyond. Since 2012, he’s also hosted a radio show in Denver where he shares his opinions on all things political and cultural. On June 4th, Mr. Brown joined Merion West’s Erich Prince to discuss the logistics behind disaster response, the government’s role in alleviating the impacts of these disasters, and the risks of a possible pandemic.

Erich Prince: So to start off, a Time magazine piece last October, in which you were quoted, discussed potential comparisons between the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria and to Hurricane Katrina. One of the points made by both you and your successor, Dave Paulison, suggested the need for a unified response across all levels of government to natural disasters, and your successor specifically discussed coordination among the “the federal, state, and local level.” Can you talk about what this looks like?

Michael D. Brown: I think, first and foremost, it means that every level of government needs to understand—and quite frankly, every citizen needs to understand—the role of each of those levels of government. We operate under a system of federalism where we have a central government with a limited authority, and the people that have the most authority are state and local governments. I always try to explain to people that, in a disaster, the two most powerful individuals are the mayor of an impacted community and the governor. It’s not the President of the United States. It’s not FEMA. It’s those local individuals because they are the ones that have primary responsibility for responding to a disaster.

The way I describe it is this: when you have a problem, whether it’s a fire or your home’s been destroyed by a hurricane or a tornado and you dial 911, you don’t get Washington DC. You get your local first responder. So I emphasize, for a particular reason, that not only do those local state and federal officials need to know what their roles are, but I believe citizens need to know what their roles are. We’re almost through a slow, glacial-like process moving into territory where people tend to think that it’s the federal government’s primary responsibility to respond, and state and local governments are almost bystanders. It’s actually just the opposite.

During my tenure in FEMA, I had the record number of federally-declared disasters to deal with; I think it was either 160 or 161. When you think about 160 disasters, that raw number by itself may seem like a lot, except when you take into account the hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of disasters that occur that never even involve the federal government. So the need for coordination is first understanding what the roles are, and then recognizing that first and foremost, it’s local government. Then if it’s beyond the capacity of local government, you turn to the state government, and the state is able to draw upon mutual aid with all of their counties to help it respond to a disaster.

Then, if the disaster is so large that it overwhelms that, then the federal government can come in. The federal government can respond in stages. They can help with mutual aid among the states, so that if a disaster occurs in Texas, and they’ve done everything they can do, we can send in urban search and rescue teams or we can send in firefighters.

I’ll give you an example. There’s a fire going on in southern Colorado right now and a fire in northern New Mexico, both very large, out of control wildfires. The National Fire Service has dispatched teams, through coordination by FEMA, of firefighters from around the country to go fight these fires. It doesn’t mean that FEMA’s on the spot—they may have a representative there to monitor—but FEMA’s not doing things other than coordinating.

Then you go to the next level, where a disaster becomes so large, like 9/11, which has national security impacts. Clearly, that has a leading federal role. Ground Zero was a coordinated effort between federal, state, and local because the feds, FEMA, brought in urban search and rescue teams, and we brought in firefighting teams from all over the country. And then we had to coordinate with the FBI and the CIA. At the same time, we’re doing all of that, we’re coordinating with NYPD and NYFD to make sure we’re doing everything that they needed help with.

So yes, it’s this huge dance that takes place, and it starts out with a person doing a solo dance, which is the local guys. And you’ve got two partners, you’ve got your local and state. Sometimes you bring in a third partner, which is the feds.  We need to never forget that. FEMA is not a first responder.

Erich: Another question that I wanted to get your view on, and it comes up in the context often of storms, is this so-called issue of “price-gouging,” where items like bottles of water or fuel sometimes run well above market price. Is this something you encountered a lot during your tenure at FEMA or something you have thoughts on how to deal with?

Michael: Yes, I ran into it. I’m going to talk a little bit like a lawyer right now. On the one hand, I don’t have a problem with it. So Hurricane Harvey hits Houston. Houston is millions of people. If Joe Blow with Oklahoma City has the ability, maybe he’s got a water company or maybe he’s just an entrepreneur, and he’s able to commandeer an eighteen-wheeler and load it up with cases and cases of bottled water and take it to Houston and sell it for five bottles, that gets water there.

By the same token, I’ll give you an example from the 2004 hurricanes in Florida. Everyone kept yelling about gas shortages during the four hurricanes in Florida. There was not a gas shortage, there was plenty of gas, it’s just that it was in the tanks and there was no power to pump it out. But there were a few enterprising, small convenience store owners who had the foresight to have generators. So they were able to pump the gas out of their tanks and sell it, and they sold it for an exorbitant price. I say exorbitant because, let’s say gas was a dollar a gallon at the time, then they sold it for four dollars a gallon. If I’m in a disaster and nobody has gas, but this smart guy had a generator and I need gas to get out of there, I’m willing to pay four dollars a gallon to get out.

So I think we really get wrapped up in this idea that, “oh my gosh, these people are suffering, and we should sell them everything at standard commercial rates.” Well, who made that rule up? Because if the Red Cross or the Salvation Army or everybody else is still getting supplies in and if FEMA is still getting supplies in, and it’s not enough, and there’s somebody willing to pay the going rate for water or gas, I don’t have a problem with that.

Erich: So let the market do its work?

Michael: Absolutely. We’re all compassionate, we all want to help, everybody is helping so everybody is providing water. But there may be pockets, there are all these pockets. When the power company’s trying to restore power, there’s always the last guy who gets power. There will always be the last guy, so there will always be pockets. If an entrepreneur can move in and supply that pocket that the Salvation Army or somebody else hasn’t gotten to, I don’t have any problem with that.

Erich: Moving on past storms, I want to ask you about how responsive or how prepared to respond to potential pandemics or the spread of disease the federal government might be. We got a sense of this with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa between 2013 and 2016. Now we hear similar tales of Ebola starting to pop up on that continent, and then people could possibly come into the United States with this infection, like we saw them come to Atlanta to be treated by the CDC. I know in New Jersey, Governor Christie set aside a psychiatric hospital as a possible location to deal with some of these patients. How prepared do you think the federal government is for the risk of a possible pandemic?

Michael: Let me just say first that all of those efforts you just described are local efforts. Someone trying to open a closed mental hospital, that’s a very noble effort. Having said that, I will then say this: we are woefully unprepared. In fact, I would say we are very unprepared.

Let’s go back to 9/11. Post-9/11, for the first few weeks after 9/11, we didn’t know what was happening next. The CIA tells us that there may be attempts to spread smallpox, for example. So that leads to a discussion about, okay, how do we know if they were able to weaponize smallpox, which is a whole other issue unto itself. But just assume for a moment that you can weaponize smallpox.

If that were to happen, then the question becomes, how do you start inoculating 325 million Americans against smallpox? And then you run into issues. Okay, let’s mail them, distribute smallpox vaccines. But then that raises the issue of if people are able to self-inoculate. Then that led to the next question, let’s have first responders do it, let’s have nurses, doctors, and firefighters do it. That means that if you’re going to have nurses, doctors, and firefighters, you have to then take care of their families first because those people are going to be exposed, so you need some sort of prophylactics to protect the people who are actually delivering the vaccines. Then that raises all sorts of issues about, so you’re going to do firefighters first as opposed to sending in someone with a level A suit to distribute a smallpox vaccine. The logistical nightmare of doing that has never been resolved, it’s never been thought through, all the unintended outcomes.

Then you add onto all that the panic mode that people will naturally go into. “Oh my gosh, there’s a smallpox outbreak.” Maybe the smartest thing for you to do is to stay in place, it’s to stay at home, not move and not go out. But people have this instinct, that if I drive to the fire station five blocks from my house, I might be able to get the smallpox vaccine. By doing so, everybody else is thinking about that, and now you’ve got a thousand people in the fire station that has enough vaccines for 250 people.

No, we are not prepared.

Erich: Piggybacking off the Ebola discussion, and you alluded to this a little bit with this perception that it’s the federal government’s job to step in for disasters when it might actually be better handled at the local level in some cases. With Ebola, there was a big effort by NGOs and other organizations to step-in. What do you see as the interplay both domestically and around the world in some of these disasters between nonprofit organizations and the government? Are there ever cases where private organizations are better served to take the lead?

Michael: I think almost always they’re better served to take the lead. The government may have a role in helping to logistically organize that, but I think that to the extent that you can rely on the private sector and NGOs to respond to a disaster, we’re all better off. They’re better equipped, and they’ve got the infrastructure that the feds don’t have.

People will argue with me and say, “Oh, we’re the mightiest nation on Earth. We can move all of this military equipment into Iraq and push Saddam Hussein back during the first Gulf War. Why can’t we do the same thing in the United States?” You’re talking about a very isolated incident, which people saw on television when the invasion started. They didn’t see all of the build-up that took place to get there.

When you think about what we have here—FedEx, UPS, Red Cross, Salvation Army, Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club—you’ve got all of these places that have networks that can be used to do distribution, and I think it’s foolish, absolutely foolish, not to recognize it. I truly see the private sector as part of the first responder network.

Erich: I want to talk with you about terrorism. You mentioned dealing with the aftermath of 9/11, and I’m curious about how effective you see the TSA. Certain Republicans in Congress, like Senator Rand Paul, have talked about the TSA not being particularly effective when it comes to actually thwarting potential plots and maybe it’s more of just a deterrent. From your experiences, do you see the TSA as a helpful institution or something that could be run better?

Michael: I think the TSA is highly ineffective. The Inspector General report shows that in the last test run they did, they missed 95 percent of the incendiary devices or guns that the Inspector General tried to get through the checkpoints. So I think they’re highly ineffective.

Now, you said something, and I don’t know whether you meant it this way or not, but you asked, is the TSA capable of anticipating or understanding the threat? That’s not their job. Their job solely is to keep a guy with a gun or a bomb or a knife from getting on a knife. They’re ineffective in doing that, and I would also argue that the technology they use is as well. There’s a reason why prisons do not use these body scanners. If a terrorist truly wants to kill himself to blow up a plane, and I don’t mean to be crude here, all he has to do is pack some C4 up a certain cavity and figure out how to blow himself up on an airplane.

The second point I would make is this: if you want to see how ineffective TSA is, think about all the vulnerabilities. All TSA is doing is looking at passengers and employees. Even the TSA themselves is a threat. I’ll give you an example. I’ve watched them at the Denver International Airport, where a TSA person will come on duty. They will have to go through the magnetometer. They get their lunchbox checked. They’re in the secure sterile area. Now, they pass back out of the sterile area, and they can then walk back through. So if they wanted to work in conjunction with a terrorist, they can get stuff into the sterile area.

We also have a problem of baggage handling and the ramp workers. I’m not saying that baggage handlers are terrorists, I’m just saying that if you understand the concept of a clean skin, of an individual that didn’t have any sort of terrorist or criminal record, they get hired, they patiently wait for the right opportunity and then if they have a cohort somewhere, if they wanted to blow up a plane, they could blow up a plane.

So I just see TSA as nothing but kangaroo security. Do they occasionally catch the guy at Denver that forgot to take his concealed carry gun out? Yes. Was that guy going to be a threat to me on the airplane? Probably not.

Erich: It seems like a lot of your criticisms with the TSA are aimed at their rate of effectiveness. Are you sensitive at all to certain arguments made by a lot of libertarians and leading Republicans about the potential invasion of privacy aspect of airport screening?

Michael: Absolutely. In fact, what some TSA agents do and force some passengers to do would be considered sexual assault outside that airport. What we are doing is desensitizing the American public about civil liberties, and Senator Paul is absolutely right—the Fourth Amendment has gone out the window at airports.

There’s a misconception that you must have an identification, a driver’s license or a passport, to board an airplane, and you do not. Now, the airline may require that to sell you a ticket for economic reasons, but to actually board the plane, you do not need an ID. There’s an old legal opinion from DHS council that no, you do not need to have an ID, but you will be subjected to a secondary search. We have a free right of association. We have the right to travel freely. Now, I want to distinguish though, between that and the airline. Because the airline doesn’t want me to buy it a ticket and not use it for economic reasons. But that’s the private sector, that’s not the government sector.

Erich: Last question. There’s a suggestion made by some political scientists that some events which lie outside politicians’ control can almost irrationally cause voters to blame the politician. The study concerned shark attacks on the New Jersey coastline and the percentage of people voting again for Woodrow Wilson. As of late, two other researchers, Anthony Fowler and Andy Hall, have criticized it on statistical grounds. In any event, there is this perception held by many political scientists that politicians can be blamed for events outside their control, like natural disasters. How true do you think this is?

Michael: If you’re asking me, the answer is unequivocally yes, I believe that is true. I still to this day get blamed for not evacuating New Orleans. Wait a minute, neither the president nor me as the FEMA director had the authority to evacuate New Orleans. That’s the responsibility of the mayor and the governor. So I think there is this tendency, when things go bad and we are sitting comfortably in our rooms looking at our big screen TVs, we see people suffering, and all we see is that image, that short five-second image, and we get angry. We’re America. We don’t want to see people suffering. So we get mad. What’s the easiest target? The easiest target is the politician who is there, whether it’s an elected official or an appointed official, because they’re on the television. So they become the target.

Erich: I appreciate your time today, Mr. Brown. Thank you for chatting with us.

Michael: My pleasure.

Erich J. Prince is a Co-founder and contributor at Merion West. Erich has written for a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, and the Orlando Sentinel. His writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale University, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress. Contact Erich at erich@merionwest.com.