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

Disaster cover (Cooper & Block)We spoke with Christopher Cooper and Robert Block in August 2006 as Times Books was publishing their powerful behind-the-scenes account of the federal government’s failure in Hurricane Katrina. [Ed. note: The book is now available in paperback.]

Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security is a superb, authoritative work that focuses on the federal response to the disaster—a catastrophe within a catastrophe—but also gives an excellent background on the history of FEMA and of the levee system around New Orleans. Cooper and Block know New Orleans (Cooper lived there 10+ years as a Times-Picayune reporter) and they know FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.

This is a book of reportage that readers of any (or no) political persuasion can appreciate: Cooper and Block keep their opinions to themselves and let the facts do the talking. They show that the 80-percent evacuation of metro New Orleans was a resounding, unprecedented success; that the Bush administration severely and repeatedly cut federal funding for ongoing reinforcements of the city’s flood protection system; and that the U.S. government through the Army Corps of Engineers failed to protect the city, whose citizens never imagined the canals’ floodwalls would ever collapse. Cooper and Block also show that placing FEMA within the counterterrorist Department of Homeland Security reduces its effectiveness as a disaster response agency. Michael “Brownie” Brown had his flaws, but he at least recognized that FEMA needed better funding and more flexibility as a disaster response agency. Now FEMA is ignored down in DHS’s basement while DHS secretary Michael Chertoff, along with the administration he serves, concentrates on counterterrorism-an important job but needed less frequently than response to natural disasters.

By letting the facts speak for themselves, and without directly so advocating, Cooper and Block’s account makes a strong case for restoring the independence of FEMA and returning its director to the cabinet-level status that James Lee Witt was granted during the Clinton administration. This is a richly documented work by veteran reporters who have no particular agenda but the improved protection of Americans everywhere. As they demonstrate, if New Orleans is not safe, neither is any other major American city.

Christopher Cooper was a political reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans and a White House correspondent for The Wall Street Journal who now covers national politics for the Journal.

Robert “Bobby” Block writes about the Department of Homeland Security for The Wall Street Journal and is a former foreign correspondent who has reported on war and terrorism from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Part I

  • FEMA, Disaster Management, and Homeland Security
  • The Federal-State Power Struggle

Part II

  • How Bush, Chertoff, and Congress See FEMA and Homeland Security

Part III

  • The Federal-State Struggle and the Militarization of Disaster Management
  • FEMA’s “Janitors” Stuck in DHS’s Basement; Disaster Response Held Hostage by Terrorism Fixation
  • “You Are Your Own First Responder”
FEMA, Disaster Management, and Homeland Security

Before we get into the disaster of Katrina, tell us about how FEMA used to work in the good old days when James Lee Witt was director [1993–2001] in the Clinton administration.

Block: In a nutshell, what FEMA had under James Lee Witt was very good relations with local agencies. They had developed an understanding of which states, localities, had a very mature sense of emergency management and which of those had less mature systems. One of the skills that had been developed in FEMA in those days was knowing when to step in and hold hands, when to push paper in front of governors and lieutenant governors and mayors and emergency managers, anticipating their needs because they understood their shortcomings. So they said things like, ‘Chances are, governor, you might want to sign this, probably won’t need it, but if you do we can get things rolling earlier.’ They had this ability to take charge or direct things but very sensitively.

When Witt left and Joseph Allbaugh came in and there was a much more traditional approach-as we point out in the book, a lot of what Witt did was untraditional, the way FEMA’s trajectory was going. With Joe Allbaugh they brought in a more ham-fisted management approach. A lot of that experience [personnel] since the end of the Witt era left. They left either because they didn’t like the way things were going inside, or they saw the writing on the wall with the Department of Homeland Security, or they were driven out. And with them left that ability to understand and very clearly anticipate the needs sensitively of what states and locals did.

It sounds like the only FEMA worth recreating is the agency as it was administered by Witt.

Block: Yes, certainly it had a very keenly focused eye and it had the confidence of the president, but there were problems with FEMA then, too. A lot of what FEMA was then was leadership-driven, not inherent in the institution. But the principals and the large moves that he had done and the way he had put everything together saw it as a cycle and redefined how everything worked. Yes, people who do disaster response professionally are definitely advocating a return to that.

Cooper: James Lee Witt understood that disasters are political events. The way to keep Congress happy and constituents happy is to respond quickly and effectively to disasters. There’s no quicker way to get unelected than by screwing up a disaster.

Then you might think that the present Congress would want more of that kind of management.

Cooper: They do and they don’t. The present Congress forgets that sometimes. It runs counter to their bedrock philosophy of Republicanism which is ‘rugged individualism.’ ‘Don’t rely on big government to do things for you.’ And that is something you hear over and over again with relation to Katrina. And we hear it over and over. ‘Why do you blame the government for all this? When did the federal government get in the business of having to handle every little local disaster?’ The fact is the government has been in that business for more than thirty years. When the locals fail, the state steps in; when the state fails, the feds step in. And in this case, the feds didn’t step in. They are the reason that the system didn’t work. Because the fact is, Ray Nagin doesn’t have charter buses and helicopters at his disposal. And neither does Kathleen Blanco. . . . This is what the federal government was created for, to help states that are in peril.

So when they ask, ‘When did the federal government get in the business of . . .’, well, as you point out in your early chapters, historically the federal government has been to some degree or another assisting in disasters since the early 1800s.

Cooper: They’ve always been in the business, and this didn’t occur any differently. They weren’t called on until it became clear that this was an overwhelming catastrophe that the locals wouldn’t be able to handle. And what did they do? They slow-walked it. . . . In the end, all disasters are political.

And so, in contrast to James Lee Witt’s FEMA, how was the agency’s disaster management different in Hurricane Katrina?

Block: While everyone understood that Louisiana did not have a very mature emergency management program-it was a program that would have needed a tremendous amount of federal support-that support was not there. And it wasn’t proactive. They didn’t step in immediately to kind of help the state by saying, ‘Governor Blanco, you might need this,’ or make sure someone was there with Mayor Nagin. That did not exist. It was very much a step-back approach because that expertise had left.

What ended up happening was, after Katrina-I compare it to a nude painting class, or the blind men describing the elephant-you had people looking at the model from completely different perspectives, and when Washington and the DHS and Michael Chertoff looked at Katrina they said, ‘Oh my God, the states and locals are not up to it, they’re not capable. We are going to have to deal with everything.’ The states on the other hand looked at Katrina and said, ‘Oh my God, don’t count on the feds, because if you ever need them they’re not going to be there to back you up.’ So this started a process of almost divergent planning, where many states such as Florida and to some degree Texas began planning for these hurricane seasons and other things discounting federal involvement. And the feds did their planning assuming that the states were not going to be able to perform. So you have different expectations, different anticipations that are going on.

At the same time-in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew [August 1992] we saw the same thing, when Hurricane Andrew swept through Florida. If you go back and look at those press cuttings from those days, you could substitute the name ‘Governor Blanco’ for ‘Governor Chiles’ [of Florida] and you could take out ‘Katrina’ and put in ‘Andrew’ and you could substitute some of the players but the stories were the same. The idea was the states could not handle it, that the military was the only institution in this country capable of doing it, and the military needed to step in.

What ended up happening was, there was a change of administration and a few other things took place, and in the end they didn’t move toward the military option. Precisely because a lot of people recognized that with the military it was always going to be a second-tier mission for them. Their main mission was to defend the country, and why add to that? What you needed from the military was some of their toys and their skill sets-you didn’t necessarily need them to be doing it. On the contrary, the military wasn’t really good or particularly trained in taking over operations domestically because historically we’ve never wanted them to do it.

You didn’t have that with Katrina. On the contrary you didn’t have a change of administration, you had this prevailing viewpoint that the states and the locals can’t do it, and you had this new department that is in theory in control of all of this. So increasingly at the same time you have the DHS, which is running FEMA for all intents and purposes, operating from the assumption that although they’re paying lip service to the idea that all disasters are local and that the locals need to take the lead, in reality their planning is all based on the idea that they need to micromanage the response from Washington.

The Federal-State Power Struggle

So there’s a federal-state power struggle going on.

Block: You’ve got the White House, which has gone ahead and given the military-and in this particular case Northcom-the lead role in this, saying (nod, wink), ‘We want you to consider the possibility that you’re going to have to take over in a certain event.’ The U.S. Northern Command, also known as Northcom, is another entity that was formed in the aftermath of 9/11. It is the first standing combat command in the country definitely since the Civil War and to a certain degree since World War II (because there was a limited combat command set up in the continental U.S. during WWII), and these guys have been described as a solution in search of a mission.

Northcom has two missions: homeland defense, which is in theory defending the homeland from attack, and support for civilian structures. What Northcom is-they’re still in the process of figuring it out. I was just there, and I have to say that they understand I think with much greater clarity the problems of this mission that they have been given than the DHS does. They understand the constitutional complexities of the federal system where all of a sudden they’re being asked to step in and take over things. So they’re trying to figure out how do we serve these two masters, the president of the United States who is commander in chief, as well as the federal system which basically says the governors are in charge.

Basically the prevailing viewpoint in Washington after Katrina is that states can’t handle it, so politically we have to step in. This is a very weird balance. In a way this view is not incorrect. Remember, there was this skill that had existed under James Lee Witt in which they were able to recognize which states needed more help than others and how to give help. The point was that it wasn’t this huge blunt object, it was more surgical, and it was geared to bolstering the states, not in taking over from the states. The fact that it is still not clear who’s running the show, all you have to do is look at the correspondence back and forth between Michael Chertoff and Governor Blanco that’s going on right now about who’s in charge of evacuation and sheltering and who’s in charge of the decision-making process.

This power struggle between Washington and the state is one of the most intriguing themes in the book. You describe the president’s chief of staff Andrew Card as trying to get Governor Blanco to sign a release handing authority over the National Guard to the federal government. That was on Friday, Sept. 2, five days after the storm.

Cooper: The problem was that the feds got started thirty hours late because they continued to argue among themselves about whether the levees had breached or overtopped, and that really slowed them down. They struggled mightily to catch up and it took them several days to do it. By the time this power struggle began, the tide had shifted, they got their buses to the city, and it became clear that the city hadn’t devolved into anarchy. Things were changing for the better, and everybody knew that, and that’s why Blanco thought nationalizing the Guard troops and taking her out of the loop didn’t make a lot of sense at that point. Had they proposed that on Tuesday, or Monday, she would have had a harder time turning down their request. As it was, [Mississippi Governor] Haley Barbour gave them the same answer, and I think most governors would. Very few governors would relinquish control of their state to the federal government and it’s ridiculous to think that any of them would.

Especially when the federal government up to that point had not inspired confidence.

Cooper: Right. The thesis of the book is that the locals did a reasonable job of doing their job. Their job was to evacuate the city, which they did at a rate that was unprecedented in disaster annals. An 80 percent evacuation rate is a startlingly high rate of success. For better or worse they got most of the survivors in one central location where they could be fed and taken care of. Governor Blanco spoke up very early and asked for federal help-and specific federal help, like buses. So, she did her job. And there’s this idea out there that they didn’t do their jobs. The fact is that the mayor and the governor aren’t disaster officials. They don’t do this for a living. So they did the best they could. We’re very sympathetic to their efforts, flawed as they may be.

Block: What is the administration’s view on this state-federal question? Their view is that they need to control all federal assets. At the time of the Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference in May 2006, David Paulison, the current director of FEMA, was at the White House directing an exercise with the deputy principals: the vice president, the deputy secretaries, the deputy directors of departments, and in most of the federal system these are the guys who actually make sure that the mission hits the road. They were all gathered at the White House, I was told, for an exercise to go through the National Response Plan and what would be required of them during the hurricane season. Apparently Frances Townsend, who is the president’s Homeland Security adviser, came in with someone from the vice president’s office-it may have been the vice president himself, but it was someone very senior-and they said, ‘Enough of the bullshit, let’s just get to the point where we take over.’ To their credit, David Paulison and George Foresman, the under secretary for preparedness, tried to explain to them that that was really what they were trying to avoid, and that it was not the best idea for a variety of reasons.

How Bush, Chertoff, and Congress
See FEMA and Homeland Security

Do you think the White House wants FEMA to work?

Cooper: I don’t think the White House doesn’t want FEMA to work. I don’t think the White House quite understands the problem. They’re not behind any sort of drive to reformulate FEMA or Homeland. They don’t see much reason for it. What they probably need to do is pull FEMA out of Homeland because Homeland is an anti-terror agency and FEMA is a disaster response agency and the two things don’t necessarily go together. When you’re battling the terrorists your job is to prevent things from happening, and if something happens and you have to go clean up afterward, that’s basically a failure on your part. But you can’t stop a hurricane from hitting New Orleans, so FEMA would come at any problem the exact opposite way of Homeland-that is, they’d be prepared to clean up after a disaster hit, whereas Homeland is trying to prevent a catastrophe.

Do you think Secretary Chertoff understands what FEMA needs to operate effectively? (He seems to come off worst of all the characters in the book.)

Cooper: I don’t. This is not a core franchise for him. FEMA is basically a janitor. They just come in with their brooms and sweep up afterward. It is not a priority in the department under Chertoff. His priority is stopping a terrorist attack. He devotes all the agency’s resources and attention to that. He pays very little attention to FEMA and what’s really wrong with it. If a hurricane hits New Orleans this year they’ll do a lot better, but if a hurricane hits South Carolina or an earthquake hits San Francisco, I wouldn’t see that it would change much. We’re always one disaster behind in this country, so we’ll do better if a hurricane hits New Orleans, because they’re going to make sure everyone is evacuated and there are plenty of supplies on hand if disaster hits, but I don’t think they can say the same thing about South Carolina.

Why did Chertoff get the job?

Cooper: Look at his background. He’s an anti-terror guy. He was active in 9/11, and that is what they wanted. He wasn’t their first choice, but he was widely applauded at the time as being a very good choice, by Democrats and Republicans. He sailed through confirmation. . . . People at that time, before Katrina, thought this was the way to do it: We should be concentrating on stopping terrorist events, which are much more rare than natural disasters. But even so, terrorism is a very emotional subject. There wasn’t a lot of squawking when they turned their attention to terrorism and away from natural disasters.

Is there any chance that FEMA could be pulled out from DHS?

Cooper: Not under this administration. They’ve made it pretty clear they don’t intend to do that, and I don’t see them changing their minds. One of the hallmarks of this administration is its loyalty, and they don’t often come back later and say they’ve made a miscalculation or a mistake.

If the administration is not interested in pulling FEMA out of DHS, is there any interest on the part of Congress—particularly in the Homeland Security Committee—to do that?

Cooper: I think not. They investigated and made some recommendations, but taking FEMA out of Homeland was not one of them.

Didn’t they recommend abolishing FEMA?

Cooper: They recommended changing the name. Somebody has to do this stuff. Somebody has to manage disasters. It’s not something that you can just give up. I think it was clear from their recommendations that they don’t think FEMA should be taken out of Homeland Security, which means it will stay in the basement of Homeland Security. It’s a very small agency in a very big department. There’s always going to be a tremendous amount of bureaucratic red tape between this agency and the people it serves.

Block: There’s legislation on the Hill-introduced by Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security-that would basically recreate FEMA inside the Department of Homeland Security that would address all the things Michael Brown and emergency managers have been screaming about for a long time. It would reunite response and recovery; it would reunite planning and preparedness and response; it would elevate the FEMA director of the department inside the government to the level of deputy so he would have more clout and therefore a direct report; it would give them greater control and ‘ring-fence’ their funding from any budgetary hijinks. It would basically recreate FEMA, the irony of which is that although everyone has pilloried Mike Brown, what they’re recommending is exactly what he was screaming about since 2002.

The irony of course is that this move is being stymied by the debate going on between those who want to pull FEMA out of DHS and those who don’t. Because this is not resolved, they may get no action and FEMA may remain in a weakened state.

This is Collins and Lieberman’s bill as it first emerged, not what it’s been turning into. What it first emerged as was an attempt to strengthen FEMA, to call it something else, but to effectively do what needed to be done to restore that capability to the government to robustly prepare and respond to disasters.

So their proposal that got so much attention back in June was only an attempt to get rid of the name FEMA, not an attempt to abolish the agency.

Block: Right. It was an attempt at rebranding. It was politics. Rather than saying, ‘That irritating turd Mike Brown was absolutely right and this is what needs to be done’-rather than deal with all that baggage, they said let’s do all of that, let’s address those shortcomings, but why don’t we just scrap the name because the name FEMA has become a laughingstock anyway.

Trent Lott wanted FEMA broken out of DHS, and then they managed to persuade Lott to back that bill with FEMA still inside DHS. But when the bill reached the House of Representatives, the House supporters of an independent FEMA said there’s no way we’re supporting this [keeping FEMA in DHS], so that appropriation fund died, and there’s going to be a battle between those who want to recreate the old FEMA and those who want to see FEMA recreated within Homeland Security. . . .

Just because it’s in the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t mean it can’t work, and just because it’s outside the Department of Homeland Security doesn’t mean it will work.

Cooper: The Senate invented the Department of Homeland Security, so there’s going to be a great reluctance to change it. I would tell anybody who wants to be activist about this to look at the House report [the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and 
Response to Hurricane Katrina; Tom Davis (R-Va.), Chairman], which was supposed to be the really biased one, the committee that was stacked with Republicans and was considered to be most likely to be the whitewash report, and it turned out to be the best one. It’s an unflinching look at what happened. While they are not disaster responders themselves, they seem to have gone out of their way to objectively look at what happened in Hurricane Katrina in a way that I would say the Senate didn’t do. The Senate has more of a vested interest in keeping things the way they are because they’re the ones who built DHS.

Chairman Tom Davis of Virginia was pretty stand-up. He was pretty good about letting Democrats have their say, even though Democrats essentially boycotted that panel. But at the end of it Davis also said that everything that we gathered in connection with this investigation is going to be placed into the public record. That made our job a lot easier, so we didn’t have to struggle with them to wrench information out of them the way we did with the Senate or the White House. The White House turned over very little information, and not only to us, but also to the House and Senate. They guard their work product, and that is the hallmark of this administration.

So, the senators are the ones who set up the current regime [DHS], and they have a vested interest in seeing that it continues as it is. That said, Collins gets it. Collins understands Homeland Security and disaster response. She is a very smart senator on that subject.

Is there any chance with the present administration that the direct line to the president formerly enjoyed by the FEMA director will be restored?

Cooper: It’s not going to happen. This administration has an unswerving dedication to the chain of command. They are not going to let a FEMA director usurp the authority of their cabinet member-that being Chertoff-and for that matter, [FEMA’s new director R. David] Paulison is not that kind of guy. He is more attuned than most to the chain of command.

Block: There’s a possibility, and that is one of the original strong points of the legislation proposed by Collins and Lieberman. After Washington pilloried Mike Brown, saying ‘How dare you go outside the chain of command?’, this is basically looking at restoring what Brown was trying to do, to get the direct line to the White House. I don’t think the White House was opposed to that. I think Michael Chertoff is opposed to that. In theory, Michael Chertoff has basically said that the FEMA director Paulison will be in charge of all natural disasters, rather than terrorism, but people close to him tell me that he’s not convinced that that would actually transpire in a real event.

You mention that after Michael Brown left FEMA, Florida’s disaster chief Craig Fugate was interviewed in January 2006 for the job. And he came out of the interview shaking his head and said, “They wanted a liquidator, not a director.” What did he hear in that interview?

Block: What he was hearing in that interview was that they wanted to cannibalize FEMA rather than strengthen it. That was his initial instinct. It was roughly around the same time as the National Emergency Management Association’s meeting, and Michael Jackson, the deputy Homeland Security director, was there, and in one of the briefings they had with all the officers of the organization he reportedly-someone told me what he said to him was-the notion of pulling FEMA out of Homeland Security was going to be impossible because they had taken so many things out of FEMA and put them in other parts of DHS that there was nothing left to remove, was the gist of it. The ball’s swinging back in the other direction, though, and the idea is of strengthening it.

Has FEMA’s funding been increased since Katrina?

Block: The operational budget has not, as far as I’m aware. FEMA’s funding is a very squishy thing, because you’ve got the disaster relief assistance fund, which is basically billions and billions of dollars that would be spent used and drawn upon to deal with flood and fires and other disasters. And then you have the actual money that runs FEMA itself, and the two get conflated. The disaster relief fund increased, and some people say the FEMA operating budget increased, but others say that’s not correct because when you break it down in certain ways you see it actually decreased. The point you could conclude from that is there’s been no significant perceptible bump in FEMA’s ability to run itself.

Will Katrina have an effect on the funding allocations? For example, as you point out, New Orleans didn’t get the flat-bottom boats it wanted because the request didn’t have a counter-terrorism component.

Cooper: I doubt that it will. It’s up to Congress, and we don’t know what they’ll do, but the bedrock philosophy of this department hasn’t changed one whit because of Katrina. They still consider antiterrorism to be their main bailiwick. FEMA is still the stepchild of the operation.

You said earlier ‘we’ll do better if a hurricane hits New Orleans.’ Are they going to be well supplied if a hurricane hits New Orleans again?

Cooper: Well, they have some things working in their favor, one being that half the population or more is already evacuated. But I’m not sure that what they’re planning to do is going to work correctly. The Superdome for all its problems is probably a good thing to have around. At least the survivors are all in one spot. That was a big problem during this whole thing, that the survivors just wandered around on whatever high ground was available. When everything went to hell, the rescuers freelanced just like everyone else. They just deposited people on the nearest slice of high ground. They didn’t have any food or water for these people. These folks just started wandering around the city, because there were no FEMA supplies available, so they were forced to loot in some cases.

Block: Homeland Security is entirely reactive. . . . They’re getting a lot kudos for handling this latest terror threat, but what is it doing? It’s closing the barn door after the threat is known. We’ve known about the potentiality of danger of liquid explosives, and now that they’ve got a plot with liquid explosives, they’ve decided to ban liquids from the planes. They should have been figuring out a way to deal with this long before.

At the same time, because they’re reactive, they’ve focused everything they’ve been doing on hurricanes, almost to the exclusion of other threats. We talked to the chief medical officer, and all his people working on pandemic flu have been pulled off pandemic flu and have been focusing on hurricanes.

The Federal-State Struggle and the Militarization of Disaster Management

EDITOR’S NOTE: The director of the Homeland Security Operations Center, Matthew Broderick, was responsible for providing on-the-ground intelligence to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and, through him, to the White House. Broderick is portrayed in the book as frustratingly slow to recognize Katrina as a catastrophe. He did not want to send supplies until he was certain whether the levees were overtopped or they had been breached. Even though it was known for days in advance that Katrina would be a super-hurricane, and even after it struck land, Broderick opted not to activate the Interagency Incident Management Group, a panel of experts from DHS and other federal agencies who help DHS “anticipate the needs of local officials and push supplies to them before they even ask.” Broderick later explained his decision by saying, “You just got a lot of talent sitting around waiting for the fire.” (His reluctance was shared by Chertoff and deputy secretary Michael Jackson, who opposed designating Katrina as catastrophic before it hit. Jackson said that designation should be reserved exclusively for terrorist events.) Broderick later acknowledged to Senate investigators that he had no idea that a large hurricane hitting New Orleans fit the federal government’s very definition of a catastrophic event, as outlined in the fifteen most serious disaster scenarios that Homeland Security had compiled in 2004.

Matthew Broderick is gone from the Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC). Who has replaced him?

Cooper: A man who worked very close to him and was there the whole time. This wasn’t about personalities. HSOC is run like a military operation, and military intelligence-gathering is operated differently from civilian disaster operations. Broderick’s inclination to wait for the definitive view of the ground before pushing it up the ladder to his superiors is the way a military intelligence operation works, because in the heat of battle your moves can lead to soldier deaths. But in a disaster it works somewhat opposite. If you send too many helicopters into a disaster zone, that’s not as big a problem as not sending enough.

Your point is that this is not to blame Broderick personally, but that’s the style of how his operation gathers intelligence.

Cooper: Well, he takes his own personal blame to his grave with him, I suppose, but just because he’s gone doesn’t mean it’s going to work right the next time. The whole system is set up this way. It’s a military operation. It’s not a civilian disaster response operation. Homeland Security is a quasi-military agency now, designed to counter terrorism. If Broderick were overseeing an antiterrorist operation, his method of double-checking every fact on the ground would have worked perfectly. But as a disaster response, it completely comes off the rails. He doesn’t send any goods to New Orleans until he can determine for sure there’s a catastrophe on the ground. It’s not the way to run these things. You send more stuff than you need, not less stuff.

Not only in this instance with Hurricane Katrina, but thereafter, the federal government appears to be trying to control everything from Washington with their videoconferencing technology. Do they really think they can control it from afar? And toward the end of the book there’s a reference to “the Pentagon beginning its campaign to seize more of a role in disaster response.” What’s going on?

Cooper: The downside of letting the Pentagon do this stuff is that these guys are trained to go to war, not to pass out water bottles to civilians. That’s a completely different mindset. You can see that in Iraq. These guys are trained to shoot, not to help, so it may not be the perfect agency to handle a large-scale civilian disaster. There are also a lot of political ramifications to having armed federal soldiers roaming the streets of American cities.

Especially cities that they’re not familiar with.

Cooper: Right. And there are things they can do and do very well. Logistics. They can get trucks full of stuff to places where other people can’t, and that certainly would be helpful. But to put the Pentagon in overall control of a disaster is probably a mistake.

What does Rumsfeld think about this? Does he want the Pentagon to get involved in disaster response?

Cooper: I can’t speak for Rumsfeld, but we’ve had some conversations with Northcom. They’re not super-excited about taking over this disaster role. They understand full well the limitations of bringing troops into American cities. They’ll do what they’re told, but it’s not like they don’t understand the downside, and probably in a way that civilian leaders don’t.

What is the relationship between DHS and Northcom? Northcom is a division of the Department of Defense, right?

Block: Absolutely, but in theory they are the two federal entities that are in charge of both securing and responding to terrorists and large natural disasters, catastrophic events. So in theory if it’s protecting you from enemies that’s their job, and also they have what they call a civilian support function.

The relationship between them has always been ropy, which stems from the egos; from the assistant secretary for defense for homeland defense, Paul McHale, who wanted to keep things in charge and didn’t want the generals of Northcom talking directly to DHS Secretary Tom Ridge; to the first commander of Northcom who was an air force general by the name of Ralph Eberhart. Now you have Admiral Timothy Keating who’s in charge of Northcom-a smart guy-and Michael Chertoff of DHS.

Paul McHale in the aftermath of Katrina has forced these guys to sit down and-to give credit where credit is due, there’s a much greater understanding this hurricane season between many of the federal players on what their role is than there was last year. You’ve got to give FEMA and to a certain degree DHS credit for the fact that they sat down and said, we can’t not understand this. But the problem is that they focused almost exclusively on hurricane response, which deals with advance notification events. No-notice events such as earthquakes or tsunamis and/or terrorist attacks-I’m not sure that anyone knows what their role is in that case.

The point of the matter is, Northcom is very sensitive to the idea, they understand that they need to arrive just in time, not too early and not too late-and that everything would be carefully coordinated with state authorities. That is what they’re thinking about, that’s what they’re planning for. The problem is that it’s the military, and it’s an 800-pound gorilla. Whatever its intentions are, it’s a large bureaucratic, very heavy hierarchical organization, so that doesn’t exactly mean that what’s planned is going to be in effect on the ground.

What we talk about in the book is that in the aftermath of Katrina, when the federal government was in full over-compensation mode, with Rita blowing up the Gulf they basically did not care about the niceties of the constitutional delineation of authority and they were just going in and trying to direct control. You had two hurricane events that were handled by the states in response to this very differently.

During Rita, Northcom activated itself without a request. The legality of the act is highly questionable because in theory you can’t have the military activating itself in the country unless there’s a request from the state or the president, which in this case there wasn’t and the military decided to ‘lean forward.’ When the Texas authorities found out about it they were livid, but they had so many pressures on top of them, the first of which was saving lives, and dealing with the public overreaction. When confronted by Homeland Security dictating orders and the military standing up, Gov. Rick Perry and Texas’s homeland security director Steve McCraw and their emergency management coordinator Jack Colley said screw ’em, let’s incorporate them where possible. I will communicate my displeasure, but we’re not going to get in a full-fledged battle with them. Let’s use them where we can. And they smoothed things out quietly, and the military stood down, and DHS ran around like a headless chicken.

In the end it wasn’t the storm they had expected, and things didn’t quite result in a full-on head-banging. However, Rick Perry did go up to Congress a few weeks later, joined by Arizona governor Janet Napolitano and Jeb Bush from Florida, and clearly said, ‘Stay out of state affairs.’ They told Congress that this inclination that had developed in the aftermath of Katrina was overreach, and was dangerous, and that Congress had to check its instincts and passions. Of course the most passionate one who was articulating this was Jeb Bush.

Ironically, as Jeb Bush is on the Hill on October 19, the biggest, most powerful storm on record, Wilma, is barreling through the Gulf heading toward western Florida. At this point, once again, DHS and Northcom were in full takeover mode. However, unlike Texas, Florida basically said, ‘Piss off. We’re not going to have this,’ and they successfully challenged it. There was a feeling in the aftermath of this that Washington had learned its lesson, and this was an important victory in this battle over who controls it, and obviously Washington and DHS would learn from this.

What they found out was that this isn’t the case at all. Homeland continues to press ahead with its Washington-centric approach to managing the response or having a very large role in managing the response remotely. And of course the Department of Defense also proceeded with instructing its entities to prepare all operational contingencies, that they would take over when they saw fit. So the question is not resolved, and you just have a more sensitive leadership at Northcom now than you do at DHS.

FEMA’s “Janitors” Stuck in DHS’s Basement; Disaster Response Held Hostage by Terrorism Fixation

Concerning this administration’s obsession with counterterrorism, is there any way to sway Congress to focus on preparedness for natural disasters in addition to terrorism?

Block: I think part of the problem is that emergency managers also have a complicity in this. They’re seeing things as either/or, rather than looking at the relationships or thinking in terms of all-hazards disaster management. The classic example is, let’s take 9/11. If those planes had flown into those towers as a result of Ambien usage by the pilots rather than a plot by jihadists, the response by the firemen and the federal government to the actual disaster would have been exactly the same.

Now, the concept of response is in itself a deterrent, because if you’re a terrorist and you want to sow confusion and destruction, but you know that you wouldn’t be able to do that because whatever havoc you would cause, the city would respond to so quickly that it would never be able to have that desired effect. You take the sting out of terrorism. So there’s no doubt that emergency response and preparedness is a dual-use . . . it’s good for everything. It’s truly all-hazard. And that’s really what we need to think about, as they have done in places like Florida, they’ve broken down the walls between police and fire services and emergency medical services and emergency response services, so that everyone understands their role and what would happen no matter what would blow down a building and dislocate people. That’s the key. The problem is, unfortunately, in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security the debate that ensued at all levels of the government, which the states were quick to replicate, was an either/or thing. These were seen as mutually exclusive [disaster or terrorism].

This is not in the book, but I remember having an interview with Tom Ridge when I first started doing a FEMA story about emergency managers expressing their concerns about how badly weakened FEMA was and the whole national response system was through funding channels and everything else. Tom Ridge said to me-and here’s the man who helped rewrite the Stafford Act [1988 federal law by which a presidential declaration of emergency releases disaster funds, administered by FEMA]-Ridge said FEMA never did preparedness. I said ‘What? Wait a second. That’s not true.’ He kept insisting, ‘Nope. Never did preparedness.’ And I was hearing this repeated all over, and I couldn’t understand why they were saying FEMA had never done preparedness, until just around the time Katrina hit, it became very clear to me what he meant. They had changed the definition of preparedness. Preparedness was no longer preparedness to respond. It was preparedness to ‘detect, disrupt, and prevent,’ as in a terrorist attack. So it became this law enforcement, military definition of preparedness, and once that became the benchmark, then the concept of response becomes a symbol of failure. If you ever need to call in FEMA it’s because you screwed up, you failed to detect, disrupt, and prevent. You allowed the attack to happen.

So FEMA became the janitors in that situation. And remember, the states model themselves after the federal government. In the Clinton era, every state had an emergency manager who sat at the right hand of the governor, and their mission-it was almost biblical: Yea, upon them much praise was heaped. But after 9/11, when the feds bumped emergency management down, so did the states. I recently looked at the State of Kansas emergency management web site, you could be forgiven for thinking the only threat Kansas faced was an assault from jihadists.

“You Are Your Own First Responder”

Your book is very well done, and it is very evenhanded, but it leaves this reader quite distressed about the prospects for any improvement in the federal response. You give some encouraging and heartwarming portraits of some of the local people who took matters into their own hands in New Orleans and environs. But for the federal structure, the administrative response, I’m about as depressed as I ever was. Even more so.

Cooper: I have to say, it’s not a book with a happy ending. Chertoff says it best, at the very end of the book: You are your own first responder. That’s the truth. So what you need to ask is what can your local government do for you. I wouldn’t rely tremendously on the federal government. That said, things change. One more screw-up like Katrina and things could very well change. But I don’t see a whole lot of reason for optimism at this point.

This isn’t a book about state and local government so much as it about what’s going to happen in the next disaster. And what people ought to think about is, set aside New Orleans and think about their own town and whether their government is ready to feed and shelter 40,000 people for a week, whether they have the buses available to wholesale-evacuate their city. That’s what it comes down to. Through that prism you’d have to conclude that the city and the state did a reasonable job. They were very poor, the city and state, and we don’t always have the luxury of having these disasters visit rich places, or experienced places like Florida or California or Texas. Think about what your government would do at the local level.

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