Wednesday, September 14, 2005


It's better late than never, though some would say too little, too late.

On Tuesday, President Bush made a very rare admission of guilt, actually claiming "responsibility" for failures in dealing with Hurricane Katrina. Bush also warned that the disaster raised broader questions about the government's ability to respond to natural disasters as well as terror attacks.

At joint White House news conference with the president of Iraq, Bush said, "Katrina exposed serious problems in our response capability at all levels of government."

"To the extent the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility."

When the President was asked whether people should be worried about the government's ability to handle another terrorist attack given failures in responding to Katrina, Bush responded, "Are we capable of dealing with a severe attack? That's a very important question and it's in the national interest that we find out what went on so we can better respond."

One would have figured that those issues would have been settled following the 9/11 attacks. It's quite unsettling for the President to admit otherwise, even after a massive reshuffling of government agencies and the creation of the new Homeland Security Department.

Proclaiming that he wanted to know both what went wrong and what went right, Bush stopped trying to justify the federal reaction to the disaster. "I'm not going to defend the process going in. I am going to defend the people saving lives."

Bush had previously avoided any publicly admitting any federal failure in the hurricane response, an effort which has been widely criticized as slow and uncoordinated. Some federal officials have tried to shift blame to those at the state and local levels for their lack of preparedness in coping with the disaster.

Those protestations are clearly warranted. But having Michael Brown in place as the head of FEMA is criminal. Assigning a political appointee to a department in which he has no experience might be acceptable if we were talking about the Transportation or Agricultural Departments. But FEMA is charged with responding to emergencies, disasters, and saving lives. Brown had no place being there. His appointment was inexcusable and outrageous.

But Brown wasn't the only appointee at FEMA who was in way over his head. Including Brown, five of eight top FEMA officials came to the agency with virtually no experience in handling disasters and are leading an agency that has been dramatically depleted of seasoned crisis managers during the past couple of years. Many experienced professionals started leaving in 2003, when FEMA was stripped of its independent Cabinet-level status and folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Some agency veterans took jobs as consultants or state emergency managers. This exodus, along with the appointment of inexperienced officials, has clearly weakened the agency's ability to respond to natural disasters. This is shameful and needs to be addressed immediately.

Job satisfaction and morale at FEMA are said to be low and it's little wonder. How could a career professional be satisfied with an inexperienced political appointee leapfrogging him or her for a top position? That's Bush's fault, and he should be ashamed and should be held accountable.

It's just one more in a string of failures that he needs to take responsibility for. After the repeated denials of responsibility for the deluded invasion of Iraq, the failure to link Saddam and al-Qaeda, the failure to find the alleged WMD in Iraq, and the failure to establish security in the country after the government's fall, who would have expected the President to take responsibility for anything? Not me. I'm still shocked.

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