Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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I too saw the Chertoff press conference Jon Cohn notes over at TPMCafe, or at least the part of it in which Chertoff trotted out what I guess is going to be the 'double-up justification' for the slow federal response to Katrina.

As Jon wrote: "Chertoff says this was a unique, unpredictable one-two punch -- of a hurricane *and* a flood from a breached levee -- that nobody anticipated."

I actually thought I heard him parse it into three events. But I was writing as I listened; and press reports bear out Jon's recollection.

But in any case, same difference: this is truly a parse for the ages.

The one snippet of the transcript I was able to find online has Chertoff saying: "We were prepared for one catastrophe. The second catastrophe, frankly, added a level of challenge that no one has seen before.”

Clearly, clearly, the hurricane and the flood were part of the same natural disaster. This isn't like a tornado being followed up by an earthquake. The flooding is part of the hurricane. It's almost surreal to even have to argue this point it's so obvious. But there it is.

Clearly, the White House is pulling out every stop to argue for the impossibility of predicting what happened. But remember, everyone seems to agree that a Cat 4 or 5 hurricane would have created a storm surge that overtopped the levees. I want to go back and check all the details on this. But my understanding is that Katrina -- which was coming into Louisiana as a Cat 5 -- ratchetted down in final hours and actually hit NOLA as a Cat 3. This is part of what created that brief period in which it seemed that the city emerged more or less intact. The immediate storm surge didn't overtop the levees. But then levees failed and/or some were overtopped.

Whatever the details on that point, whether levees failed or were overtopped, the feds and everyone else had every reason to believe over the weekend that the city was going to be flooded. This scenario was not only predictable, but actively predicted as a likely scenario.

One other point: at Chertoff's press conference, he introduced someone as Deputy Director of FEMA. I assume it was this guy noted by Al Kamen in the Post's Inside the Loop column back on August 1st ...

Michael D. Brown , who runs the Federal Emergency Management Agency at the Department of Homeland Security, sent around a memo a couple of weeks ago saying "effective immediately," his chief of staff, Patrick Rhode , was the acting deputy director.

This caused some head-scratching, because there is no official deputy director position at FEMA, because there is no official director. The last person to hold such a post was Brown, before FEMA got folded into DHS. (Brown is now officially DHS undersecretary for emergency preparedness and response.)

A recent strategic review called for naming a deputy director, but Congress hasn't approved that plan and agencies don't usually go ahead without congressional blessing. Even more curious, it's not clear whether DHS or the White House, which approves such personnel moves, had signed off on Brown's move. FEMA says its general counsel approved the action.

Brown is widely expected to be leaving soon, and there has been some FEMA speculation that this is his way of trying to pave the way for a successor. Rhode had been associate administrator of the Small Business Administration.

(ed.note: Thanks to TPM Reader PR for the catch.)

I'm getting unconfirmed reports that Louisiana Gov. Blanco is now announcing that she's hired James Lee Witt as state reconstruction czar. Apparently, she beat the feds to him.

Late Update: I've yet to get any confirmation on this. And this post from the Times-Picayune on Blanco's press conference makes no mention of Witt. So this remains very much unconfirmed.

Later Update: Now confirmed.

TPM Reader JS checks in ...

[James Lee] Witt actually oversaw the recovering from flooding in Arkansas 15 or so years ago. I was there, I know. As head of FEMA, he had an impeccable record of responding well and the best ever to disasters. He drew bipartisan support including from Bush. So why are Democrats and others not demanding that HE not Rudy who has no experience with flooding and hurricanes _ but WITT BE PUT IN CHARGE OF THIS?!!! He has experience, the qualifications and the proven record. No one in this administration or Rudy has that.

JS must be responding <$Ad$> to Newt Gingrich's call to put Rudy Giuliani in charge of reconstruction.

First, though, let's remember that Rudy's moments of greatness were during the attacks and their immediate aftermath. His record in work that is comparable to what's on offer here is decidely more mixed. Do we want Bernie Kerik retooling the gambling boats down on the Delta? Maybe the bars on Bourbon Street?

In truth, though, I'm not sure even appointing an eminently qualified guy like Witt as Bush's Delta Czar will be enough to insulate the operation from the administration's endemic cronyism and graft. Maybe we need to be thinking of something more along the lines of the RTC, a time-limited government-chartered corporation run by non-partisan professionals. Can we really afford to blow another $100 billion? Think about it. Haven't we already seen the Baghdad version of this movie?

Today's Times devotes a whole article to the criticism of FEMA chief Michael Brown. ("Leader of Federal Effort Feels the Heat")

Here's the treatment of his professional background ...

Mr. Brown, 50, is a Republican lawyer who worked for the International Arabian Horse Association before joining FEMA in 2001 as general counsel. This week he has become the public face of an agency that critics say has lost focus and clout since it was absorbed in 2003 by the new Department of Homeland Security.

If you don't know why that reporting sounds a tad thin, read the post below.

Yesterday the Houston Chronicle reported that Halliburton has been hired by the Navy to repair its damaged facilities in Mississippi and perform initial damage assessments of facilities in New Orleans.

The work was assigned, reported the Chronicle, "under a 'construction capabilities' contract awarded in 2004 after a competitive bidding process." But it raises a question it is not at all too early to ask. The egg is pretty much cooked on the relief operation. But in the coming days and weeks we will move into a recovery phase in which, no doubt, tens of billions of dollars will be spent cleaning up and rebuilding not just New Orleans but big sections of the Gulf Coast.

Does anyone believe that the Bush administration can handle that money and that task without widespread waste, fraud and cronyism?

That's not just a question for partisan Democrats. I would think that there are a lot of Republicans up for reelection next year who are probably giving that question some serious thought. They may not want to attack the president. They may even want their own seat on the gravy train. But they know the record as well as anyone. And they may not want to be carrying the president's water a year from now when the news stories are filling the papers.

The news out today about FEMA Director Michael Brown tells the ugly tale. So let's just review what we now know -- with key new details first from a diarist at DailyKos and now confirmed in more depth in this morning's Boston Herald.

Michael Brown is a lawyer and GOP party activist. Before he came to FEMA in 2001, he had a full-time job overseeing horse-shows as the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. He started with them in 1991. But he was eventually fired because of what the Herald describes as "after a spate of lawsuits over alleged supervision failures." (The Kos diary has some more details.)

But the stars were shining on Brown because President Bush had just been elected. And he appointed his chief political fixer Joe Allbaugh to replace James Lee Witt as head of FEMA.

That was a good break for the recently-canned Brown, because, as we learn from the Herald, he and Allbaugh were college roommates. He hired Brown as his General Counsel at FEMA in February. And then, by the end of the year, he promoted him to Deputy Director.

Then, little more than a year later, Allbaugh left FEMA to set up New Bridge Strategies, a consultancy to cash in on the Iraqi contracts bonanza. On Allbaugh's departure from FEMA, Brown became Director, in charge of federal domestic emergency management in the United States.

So, just to recap, Brown had no experience whatsoever in emergency management. He was fired from his last job for incompetence. He was hired because he was the new director's college roommate. And after the director -- who himself got the job because he was a political fixer for the president -- left, he became top dog. And President Bush said yesterday that he thinks Brown is "doing a helluva job".

Tens of billions of federal dollars are going to be spent on reconstruction, though the first allotment is only $10.5 billion. Does anybody think Bush administration has the competence or honesty to manage that money? Does anybody think it won't be handled with the efficiency, expertise and integrity of the Iraqi reconstruction?

Earlier we asked who would track down the story about FEMA Chief Michael Brown's apparent firing from his last <$NoAd$> pre-FEMA employment.

The Boston Herald is on the case. The lede from this morning's piece by Brett Arends ...

The federal official in charge of the bungled New Orleans rescue was fired from his last private-sector job overseeing horse shows.

And before joining the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a deputy director in 2001, GOP activist Mike Brown had no significant experience that would have qualified him for the position.

The Oklahoman got the job through an old college friend who at the time was heading up FEMA.

The agency, run by Brown since 2003, is now at the center of a growing fury over the handling of the New Orleans disaster.

A bit further down, there's this ...

Brown was forced out of the position after a spate of lawsuits over alleged supervision failures.

``He was asked to resign,'' Bill Pennington, president of the IAHA at the time, confirmed last night.

Soon after, Brown was invited to join the administration by his old Oklahoma college roommate Joseph Allbaugh, the previous head of FEMA until he quit in 2003 to work for the president's re-election campaign.

Takes your breath away, doesn't it?

Late Update: Here's Brown's work bio at the DHS website: "Prior to joining FEMA he practiced law in Colorado and Oklahoma, where he served as a bar examiner on ethics and professional responsibility for the Oklahoma Supreme Court and as a hearing examiner for the Colorado Supreme Court. He had been appointed as a special prosecutor in police disciplinary matters. While attending law school he was appointed by the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee of the Oklahoma Legislature as the Finance Committee Staff Director, where he oversaw state fiscal issues. His background in state and local government also includes serving as an assistant city manager with emergency services oversight and as a city councilman."

Here's a question that needs a reporter to report it out.

Over at DailyKos there's a diary entry which suggests that FEMA Chief Michael Brown was fired from his last pre-FEMA job as a commissioner with the now-defunct International Arabian Horse Association. A White House press release announcing Brown's appointment as Deputy Director of FEMA in December 2001 states simply that: "From 1991 to 2001, Brown was the Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, an international subsidiary of the national governing organization of the U.S. Olympic Committee."

Links provided in the original post, as well as comments from Kos readers who were members of the IAHA, strongly suggest there's something to this story. But we need more facts, more details, interviews with people in a position to know the key facts.

If the story checks out, it should be much more widely known. But it will never get picked up until someone does the basic reporting. Who will do it?

Atrios has a string of posts up today pointing to a common global explanation of what happened last week, a failure not of resources and capacity but coordination and executive leadership.

An article in the Post suggests the US military was ready to begin emergency food drops into New Orleans much earlier in the week. But they were waiting on a request from FEMA.

Lousiana Gov. Blanco accepted an offer of state National Guard troops from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson on Sunday, just before the storm hit. But the paperwork from Washington, allowing the troops to deploy, didn't come until Thursday.