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September 04, 2005

New Orleans -- lots of plans, no execution

Michael Brown may be a nice enough guy.

But the Peter Principle went into effect, in spades, when in 2003 he was named the Department of Homeland Security's first Under Secretary of Emergency Preparedness and Response or, in more familiar terms, Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

His resume is pretty thin, given the job. A lawyer, he's been in private practice, an Oklahama legislative aide, an assistant city manager in an Oklahoma City suburb and, from 1990 to 2001, commissioner of judges and stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association, a breeders' and horse-show organization based in Colorado.

Forced from his job there he landed at FEMA as general counsel in 2001 with a boost from Joe Albaugh, FEMA's director, who later named Brown under secretary. Less than two years later, President Bush advanced him to FEMA's top post within the reorganized Department of Homeland Security.

Putting thinly qualified people in critical posts sometimes works out; more often it doesn't.

Faced with the long-anticipated and much planned for hurricane strike that would devastate New Orleans, Mr. Brown fumbled the ball.

The agency he'd inherited, armed with the knowledge of a scene "played out for years in computer models and emergency-operations simulations," simply didn't react in the critical days. (The quote is from one of the stories in "Washing Away", a
New Orleans TImes-Picayune series published in 2002. Well worth reading.)

Mr. Brown's agency is armed with National Response Plan that among other things "ensures the seamless integration of the federal government when an incident exceeds local or state capabilities," according to the DHS website.

Didn't see much "seamless integration" down New Orleans way, though the need became clearer in the days prior to the deadly strike. The National Hurricane Center's archive of Katrina advisories begins at 5 p.m. August 23 and offers increasingly dire reading. By 10 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, the warning to New Orleans was umambiguous: " PREPARATIONS TO PROTECT LIFE AND PROPERTY SHOULD BE RUSHED TO COMPLETION."

New Orleans officials had among other guides, the Southeast Louisiana Hurricane Evacuation and Sheltering Plan. It's one of several related plans to be found at the plans page of the Louisiana Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness site.
Also included there is a federal response plan, as updated in January 2003.

Lots of plans. Not much execution. No "seamless integration" of local, state and federal response.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was little more qualified to deal with the crisis than Mr. Brown. He's one of those new politicians, a reformer who relied mostly on his own money to get elected mayor in 2002 after switching from the Republican Party to the Democrats in order to enhance his chances. An executive with Cox Communications, the cable company, the mayor's job is his first elective office.

He's getting blasted, too, particularly on GOP websites like Redstate.org.

Whatever his failures, the rest of the nation doesn't depend on him. But we do on Mr. Brown and his agency. Given events, it's time for him to move on.

Here'a an open letter from The New Orleans Times-Picayune to President Bush, published today, in which the paper said, "Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially."

I couldn't agree more.

Posted by jcb at September 4, 2005 02:49 PM