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Hurricane Isaac and Tampa’s Blizzard of Lies

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

What Would Romney-Ryan Mean for FEMA and Infrastructure?

[ cross-posted at DailyKos ]

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“One of the themes of the Tampa convention will be the failure of government, and the prosperity that will result if it is cut to ribbons. But in a different corner of the television screen, the winds of Isaac are a reminder of the necessity of government—its labor, its expertise, its money—in the nation’s most dire moments. It is hard to forget what happened to New Orleans when that Republican philosophy was followed in 2005, and it will be harder still to explain how it might be allowed to happen again.” —“The Storm, Again,” NYT editorial, Aug. 27, 2012

“We have responsibilities, one to another—we do not each face the world alone. And the greatest of all responsibilities, is that of the strong to protect the weak. The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves.” —vice presidential nominee Paul D. Ryan, acceptance speech, Republican National Convention, Tampa, Aug. 29, 2012

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If Hurricane Katrina was indeed divine retribution for abortions and tolerance of homosexuality, then how are we to understand God’s twice visiting strong hurricanes upon the U.S. at the exact moment when the Republican National Convention gathers to nominate its presidential candidate, with Gustav in 2008 and now with Isaac, which made landfall on the Gulf Coast on August 29, the exact 7-year anniversary of Katrina? (Rush Limbaugh has a suspicion.)

Far be it from us to question the wisdom of the true believers, but it’s our view that if hurricanes must come at all, it’s best they blow when the elephants are gathering at the water hole—preferably in Florida, or some other red coastal state. Let the screen be split. Let the images be juxtaposed. Let the nation never forget how the Republican way of governing—staffing disaster relief agencies with inexperienced cronies and then cutting funds—resulted in the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina: immeasurable death, destruction, anguish, financial ruin and impoverishment, dispersal, heartbreak . . . (To be sure, however, blame rests with both parties for the chronic underfunding of the Army Corps of Engineers that left the city’s levees and outflow canals’ floodwalls compromised.)

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), established by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 at the persistent urging of state governors, only functions well when Democrats are in the White House. Democrats take governing and disaster management seriously, and Republicans do not. Bill Clinton’s FEMA director James Lee Witt (1993–2001) and the present director, W. Craig Fugate, are widely respected as disaster response professionals. In Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security (2006), Chris Cooper and Bobby Block survey the sad story of Republican disregard for disaster relief. FEMA’s tardy and disorganized response to Hurricane Andrew (shown above) in August 1992 likely cost President George H. W. Bush many votes in Florida, and beyond. Bill Clinton wrote in My Life (2004):

Traditionally, the job of FEMA director was given to a political supporter of the President who wanted some plum position but who had no experience with emergencies. I made a mental note to avoid that mistake if I won. Voters don’t chose a President based on how he’ll handle disasters, but if they’re faced with one themselves, it quickly becomes the most important issue in their lives.

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More Tax Cuts for the Rich, While Disaster Relief Is Held Hostage?

Five, six days after the storm, the lights are just coming back on in Mid-City and other parts of New Orleans. It’s 93 degrees, and thousands are still in the dark, without air conditioning.

While Hurricane Isaac was not as destructive as we feared—the reinforced floodwall system around greater New Orleans held up well—this storm’s timing was a reminder that there is one political party that is not to be trusted with disaster management, or with anything else relating to the social safety net. Mitt Romney’s economic plan would reduce non-discretionary spending by 30 percent.

Others have examined the falsehoods in Paul Ryan’s v.p. nomination acceptance speech and the overall dishonesty of the RNC show in Tampa (see here and here). Many have objected to the Republicans’ hypocrisy in blaming a president for failures ensured by their own blocking of every effort at repairing the economy. They filibustered or voted No on all potential remedies to make the public reject Obama. Many independents as well as Democrats and moderate Republicans are put off by the Mad Tea Party–style conservatives’ insistence that nothing good can come of government.

Many of the lies and evasions that concern us most, however, stem from the GOP’s hostility to spending taxpayers’ dollars on programs of direct help to the public, from Medicare and Social Security to FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which includes the National Hurricane Center and the National Weather Service.

Paul Ryan sounds reassuring when he says, “The truest measure of any society is how it treats those who cannot defend or care for themselves,” but the budgets he has put forth as chair of the House Budget Committee tell another story: You’re on your own.

Tim Murphy of Mother Jones in “What Would Romney-Ryan Mean for FEMA?” surveys the implications for disaster relief in the Ryan budgets—the same ones that would convert Medicare to a privatized “Vouchercare.” Murphy notes that the Ryan budget does not detail specific cuts (just as Mitt Romney avoids specifics), but “the overall math suggests that [the cuts] would be drastic.” In 2011 there were 14 disasters costing over $1 billion in damages, a record high, and with the intensifying climate change that the Republicans refuse to acknowledge, the disasters’ frequency and destructiveness are only going to get worse.

Murphy writes:

“. . . under a Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan administration, FEMA’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to natural disasters could be severely inhibited. In a 2012 report on Rep. Paul Ryan’s ‘Path to Prosperity’ roadmap (which Romney has said is similar to his own), the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that, due to the severe cuts to non-entitlement, non-defense spending, the costs for things like emergency management would have to be passed on to the states—which, with just a few exceptions, are currently in an even tighter financial bind than Washington.

“FEMA also helps states and local governments repair or replace public facilities and infrastructure, which often is not insured,” the CBPP report explained. ‘This form of discretionary federal aid would be subject to cuts under the Ryan budget. If it were scaled back substantially, states and localities would need to bear a larger share of the costs of disaster response and recovery, or attempt to make do with less during difficult times.’ ”

Pat Garofalo at ThinkProgress describes how Republicans held disaster relief funding hostage several times in 2011, demanding that funding be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. “The GOP pulled the same trick when Missouri was hit by a deadly tornado in May, when Virginia was affected by an earthquake, and when Hurricane Irene struck America’s east coast.” Garofalo quotes David Weigel at Slate:

According to the House Appropriation Committee’s summary of the bill, the [GOP's 2011 continuing resolution] funds Operations, Research and Facilities for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association with $454.3 million less than it got in FY2010; this represents a $450.3 million cut from what the president’s never-passed FY2011 budget was requesting. The National Weather Service, of course, is part of NOAA—its funding drops by $126 million. The CR also reduces funding for FEMA management by $24.3 million off of the FY2010 budget, and reduces that appropriation by $783.3 million for FEMA state and local programs.

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We won’t pretend to interpret divine intentions in the timing of the recent hurricanes and other disasters, but we can be thankful for the opportunity to point out to the concerned public that there is one slate of candidates who will not be there for you when a tornado rips through your town, or an earthquake splits your streets. We won’t say (though others may) that natural disasters are God’s way of saying “Vote Democratic,” but don’t you want to be on the safe side?

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Photo credits: Hurricane Andrew (1992) by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); downed stop light in New Orleans (2012) by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images.

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Celebrity Sighting: Levees Not War Meets FEMA’s Fugate

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Tomorrow we’ll post some comments on President Obama’s remarks at Xavier University on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. But first, allow us to babble excitedly about the public-safety-and-disaster geek’s idea of a celebrity sighting:

After all the luminaries at the fab Rising Tide conference this weekend we didn’t think we could be any more dazzled, until yesterday at the New Orleans airport we bumped into FEMA administrator W. Craig Fugate and his wife on their way back to Washington following the president’s speech. Sweet serendipity. We talked for a few minutes, told him Levees Not War has hailed his appointment as FEMA administrator—a return to the good old days of experience + competence that FEMA knew during the 1990s—and asked if we can interview him sometime. You see, Mr. Fugate, Levees Not War has interviewed Ivor van Heerden and Mark Schleifstein and other experts on the environment, infrastructure, and public safety, and we’d sincerely love to hear what you have to say after more than a year on the job. Mr. Fugate (pron. FEW-gate) graciously agreed, and we’ll be following up soon. In the meantime, you can see Deborah Solomon’s interview with “The Storm Tracker” in the Aug. 29 New York Times Magazine. He was tickled to hear that we used a photo of him paddling in his kayak (below), his home away from home; this may be why he agreed to an interview. Before parting, we wished each other a boring hurricane season.

A FEMA Administrator Who Tweets

Fugate, a former fireman and paramedic, directed Florida’s Division of Emergency Management from 2001 until his appointment to FEMA in 2009. Until 2009, James Lee Witt, FEMA administrator under President Clinton, was the most well qualified and admired director in the agency’s otherwise troubled history since its founding in the Carter years. Witt had been the emergency director for the state of Arkansas, and praise for his nimble and proactive emergency preparedness and response was bipartisan and pretty well unanimous. Florida native Fugate’s familiarity with hurricanes, however, certainly surpasses that of his celebrated predecessor, and he has won praise for, among other things, his insistence that individuals and families do as much as possible to help themselves by stocking up with emergency supplies and working out a plan for evacuation and communications. See his tweets about preparedness and staying alert about oncoming tropical storms here at In Case of Emergency, Read Blog.

Never anticipating we’d bump into him in an airport, we wrote here in May 2009 after Fugate was confirmed:

Obama’s nomination of Fugate to head FEMA exemplifies a restoration of trust in government and illustrates the difference between Democratic and Republican views of how elected officials should function. It is because Obama has largely chosen very highly qualified individuals for the federal agencies that Americans are consistently reporting to pollsters a renewed confidence in the integrity of government and a sense that the nation is moving in the right direction.

Stay tuned for more Fugate and FEMA reporting. Till then, you can read previous Fugate posts and our interview with Chris Cooper and Robert Block, authors of Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security, which explains in compelling detail why FEMA and public safety demand a competent, experienced administrator, and what happens when those qualities are lacking. (Cooper and Block were the keynote speakers at the first Rising Tide conference in August 2006.)

Fugate for FEMA: “Semper Gumby”—In an Emergency, “The Calmest Man in the Room”

More Praise for Craig Fugate as FEMA Director-Nominee

Fugate Confirmed for FEMA: Help Is on the Way

Interview with Christopher Cooper and Robert Block, authors of Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security

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Obama Welcomed, and Challenged, in New Orleans

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

Maybe he wished he’d planned to stay longer, though there may have been a point when he began to wish he hadn’t come at all. President Obama’s visit was criticized days in advance even by supporters for being too short. The advance team added a quick trip to the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School in the Lower Ninth Ward—which thrilled the school but was criticized as a drive-by photo-op. The city has had enough of that kind of presidential attention.

UNO 10-15-09For the most part, the town hall crowd at UNO was raucously friendly to the president (though they embarrassed him somewhat by booing his hosts Gov. Bobby Jindal and Mayor Ray Nagin). “This is a feisty crowd here,” he observed. And the president, to his credit—and perhaps as a defensive, damage-control measure—brought along DHS secretary Janet Napolitano, HUD secretary Shaun Donovan, education secretary Arne Duncan, and, important for coastal restoration, Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. All were welcome.

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Throw Us Somethin’, Mister President

Monday, June 8th, 2009

President Obama with Homeland Security Council president John O. Brennan  (left), DHS secretary Janet Napolitano, and FEMA administrator Craig Fugate.  FEMA photo by Bill Koplitz.

President Obama with Homeland Security Council president John O. Brennan (left), DHS secretary Janet Napolitano, and FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. FEMA photo by Bill Koplitz.

We’ll Take Some of That “Socialist Overspending”

It was good to see the president on Hurricane Season’s eve being briefed by new FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Homeland Security Council president John Brennan on preparations for the upcoming season. We are relieved that the president has appointed serious professionals in these critical positions, as we are encouraged by his nomination of Jo-Ellen Darcy to oversee the Army Corps of Engineers. But we want more of Mr. Obama’s attention—and more of his “socialist overspending” for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast: for the rebuilding of shattered communities, the reinforcement of the flood control systems, housing and education of citizens displaced by flooding resulting from breaches in federally built levees, and so on.

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Fugate Confirmed for FEMA: Help Is on the Way.

Friday, May 15th, 2009

LNW_Fugate.kayakIt is very good news that the Senate voted last week to confirm W. Craig Fugate as administrator of FEMA. Fugate knows what he is doing. He will be the “anti-Brownie”—every bit as in command as Michael Brown and other Bushies were not. Having directed Florida’s Division of Emergency Management since 2001 (Florida is the most hurricane-prone state), Fugate is by far the best-prepared administrator FEMA will ever have had—even better than the highly respected James Lee Witt who under President Clinton did so much to restore pride and confidence in that long-neglected agency. (See “Fugate for FEMA” [3/17] below, and read Cooper and Block’s Disaster for the sad procession of political appointees who have headed FEMA since its inception in the late 1970s.) When candidate Obama said, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” he may have been referring to Mr. Fugate. A thousand welcomes, sir. Can we get you a cup of coffee?

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More Praise for Craig Fugate as FEMA Director-Nominee

Monday, April 6th, 2009

We’re tracking the Fugate nomination and hearings process—not scheduled yet—and we’ll keep you posted. In other good news, reported by Mark Schleifstein of the Times-Picayune, President Obama has nominated Jo-Ellen Darcy, a senior Senate adviser on environmental and water projects, to oversee the Army Corps of Engineers. (Garret Graves of Gov. Jindal’s Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration praises Darcy as “tough as nails and a solid choice.”) In the meantime, about Fugate . . .

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Fugate for FEMA: “Semper Gumby”—In an Emergency, “The Calmest Man in the Room”

Monday, March 16th, 2009

Photo by Alachua County Today.

Photo by Alachua County Today.

Some of our readers are too young to remember a time when the much-derided FEMA actually functioned well. That would be 1993 to 2001: Under President Clinton, former Arkansas emergency services director James Lee Witt directed FEMA with direct, cabinet-level access to the president and earned wide, bipartisan respect for his competence and flexibility.

Happy days—or at least competent days—are soon to be here again. President Obama has nominated W. Craig Fugate, director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, to be the next head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This is good news indeed.

Besides his depth of professional experience (see below), there is something reassuring in the fact that the man picked to be the next director for emergency management is the one who, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, informed then-FEMA director Joe Allbaugh that two planes had struck the World Trade Center. They were in Montana at the annual meeting of the National Emergency Management Association; Allbaugh was Bush’s first FEMA director (Brownie’s predecessor), and Fugate was acting director of the agency he now heads. Fugate handed the phoneless FEMA boss his cell so Allbaugh could get the story from Fugate’s deputy in Tallahassee.

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