As politicians and commentators assign blame for the slow response to the vast human needs caused by Hurricane Katrina, most fingers are pointing in the direction of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with the latest outrage involving the recruitment of hundreds of eager firefighters who ended up being assigned as PR flaks instead of rescuers.
In Atlanta, FEMA gathered 1,400 firefighters from around the nation to help in disaster relief, but some were dismayed to learn that rather than helping to rescue or assist victims they would be dispatched as community-relations officers to hand out leaflets with the agency’s phone number: 1-800-621-FEMA.
According to a report in the Salt Lake Tribune, the firefighters sat in a muggy hotel conference room Sunday receiving sexual-harassment training when they had hoped to be on the front lines.
On Monday, some firefighters stuck in the staging area in Atlanta peeled off their FEMA-issued shirts and stuffed them in backpacks, saying they refuse to represent the federal agency.
FEMA spokesman Mary Hudak said it was made clear, at least to fire chiefs, what the mission would be.
“The initial call to action very specifically says we’re looking for two-person fire teams to do community relations,” she told the paper. “So if there is a breakdown [in communication], it was likely in their own departments.”
Many of the firefighters had brought along heavy rescue gear.
“They’ve got people here who are search-and-rescue certified, paramedics, haz-mat certified,” said a Texas firefighter. “We’re sitting in here having a sexual-harassment class while there are still [victims] in Louisiana who haven’t been contacted yet.”
A firefighter from California said he feels ill-prepared to even carry out the job FEMA has assigned him. In the field, Hurricane Katrina victims will approach him with questions about everything from insurance claims to financial assistance.
“My only answer to them is, ’1-800-621-FEMA,’” he said. “I’m not used to not being in the know.”
Much of the criticism targeted at FEMA appears to stem from the agency’s desire to “go by the book” when it comes to coordinating, and controlling, disaster relief.
“We wanted soldiers, helicopters, food and water,” Denise Bottcher, press secretary for Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco of Louisiana, told the New York Times. “They wanted to negotiate an organizational chart.”
Many news reports have included charges FEMA blocked aid from getting to victims in the early days of the relief efforts if it didn’t go through proper channels.
President Bush has vowed to commission an investigation into FEMA’s response to Katrina.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters yesterday: “We’re going to have a thorough analysis of the response efforts. [The president] made it very clear that we need to look at the federal, state and local efforts to respond to this major catastrophe. This is a – one of the largest and worst natural catastrophes in our nation’s history, and the president wants to know the facts. He wants to know what went wrong and what went right and how we can learn lessons from a catastrophe like this that occurred.”
If the New Orleans Times-Picayune gets its way, FEMA Director Michael Brown will be one of the first casualties of such an investigation. The paper called for Bush to fire Brown and other officials who were in charge when Katrina hit.
“Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially,” the paper states in an open letter to Bush in its print edition Sunday.
The Times-Picayune was scathing in its criticism for what it believes to be a slow federal response to the emergency and a lack of honesty from government officials.
Yesterday, Brown defended himself and his agency in an interview with Fox News Channel.
Responding to the call for his ouster, Brown said, “The president can do that if he wants to. We’re too busy here helping people.”
Brown emphasized that FEMA is not a “first responder” agency.
“I don’t have cops and firefighters,” he said. “That’s a local government responsibility, and that’s what they do.”
While he claimed he was not assigning blame, Brown said, “We need to have a real serious policy debate about what the role of the federal government is. This disaster exemplifies all the kind of things that need to be discussed – the levees, evacuations, communications, the role of first responders.”
As WorldNetDaily reported, Brown was fired from his last private-sector job overseeing horse shows.
Before joining FEMA as a deputy director in 2001, Brown, a Republican Party activist, had no significant experience that would have qualified him for the position. But the Oklahoman got the job through an old college friend who at the time was heading up FEMA – Joseph Allbaugh.
Joining the call for Brown’s head, radio talk-show host Michael Graham told listeners yesterday: “We’ve got a guy too dumb to judge a horse show deciding how to handle the biggest natural disaster in American history. No wonder he botched it so badly.”