Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Much was made at the time and since about the fact that James Lee Witt was the first head of FEMA who had a professional background in emergency and disaster management.

No one seems to dispute the fact that prior to 1993, the agency was a dumping ground for patronage hires. (The change was also furthered by a devastating 1992 GAO report.)

President Bush replaced Witt with Joe Allbaugh, whose main qualification was that he was one of the president's main political fixers from Texas.

When Allbaugh left FEMA in 2003 to cash in on the Iraqi contracts bonanza, he was replaced by Michael Brown. Allbaugh originally brought Brown to FEMA as General Counsel. His qualification was that they were college buddies.

When Allbaugh bailed, he apparently gave the top job to Brown.

Then there's this piece in the Chicago Tribune. First three grafs ...

Despite continuous warnings that a catastrophic hurricane could hit New Orleans, the Bush administration and Congress in recent years have repeatedly denied full funding for hurricane preparation and flood control.

That has delayed construction of levees around the city and stymied an ambitious project to improve drainage in New Orleans' neighborhoods.

For instance, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requested $27 million for this fiscal year to pay for hurricane-protection projects around Lake Pontchartrain. The Bush administration countered with $3.9 million, and Congress eventually provided $5.7 million, according to figures provided by the office of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

And further down in the piece there's this ...

"I'm not saying it wouldn't still be flooded, but I do feel that if it had been totally funded, there would be less flooding than you have," said Michael Parker, a former Republican Mississippi congressman who headed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from October 2001 until March 2002, when he was ousted after publicly criticizing a Bush administration proposal to cut the corps' budget.

Clearly Parker is yet another Bush-basher.

But this raises an important point.

As I've mentioned a number of <$Ad$>times over recent months, I used to be the worst sort of cable news junky. But over the last couple years I've slowly gone from that to watching almost no TV news at all. And last night, for the first time, I sat down and watched maybe an hour of coverage (on NBC, I think) of the devastation. For what it's worth, their coverage seemed quite good.

None of the facts were any different from what I'd learned from reading a lot of excellent newspaper and Internet coverage and photographic reporting. But events like these are television journalism's forte. Seeing it in motion, in time, conveys the magnitude and scope, the human impact, in ways that written reporting, for all its superiority at factual detail, cannot.

You can't watch that stuff and not know that this, in that corny phrase, was the big one. And even with the best preparation, with all the organizational pistons firing, there was going to be death and dislocation and property damage on a grand scale.

But how much might have been prevented? And how much more rapid might the rescue and recovery have been?

The flooding situation in New Orleans is at least somewhat unique in natural disaster terms, since there's at least a bit of an all or nothing quality to the situation. If the levees had never been breached, or if there'd been fewer breaches, a lot of that water just never would have gotten into the city. And then the situation would be radically different.

I've still heard conflicting reports about how many of the levees were breached as opposed to overtopped, which is very different, if we're considering these issues of maintaining the levees and such. The president told Diane Sawyer this morning that: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees." So clearly he has no idea what he's talking about. Or perhaps his disaster preparedness folks did his interview prep too. Or maybe he's just trying again to fool the people he's sworn to serve. Shades of Condi. Perhaps we'll get another civil engineer version of Richard Clarke coming forward.

In any case, we can understand the magnitude of this event and hold the administration to account for its lack of preparation. One doesn't cancel out the other, as much as the president and his defenders might want them to.

And one final point.

We're hearing again and again now that there just wasn't enough money for a lot of this stuff. Terrorism was our big focus. Some kinds of preparedness aren't simply a question of funds. They turn on less elastic resources. But most of what we're hearing about is dollars and planning. So when we hear, 'well, there just wasn't enough for this and terrorism', or 'we needed the money for Iraq', the real answer is 'nice try'.

The president cut taxes every year of his first term in office. He's trying to push through a major tax cut right now. So it's not terrorism that took away the money. It was tax cuts. And to a degree, same thing for Iraq.

Choices have consequences. And bad consequences require accountability.

It seems we've got part of our answer from James Lee Witt in this article from Knight-Ridder, which a number of readers were kind enough to send in.

Here's a passage ...

Being prepared for a disaster is basic emergency management, disaster experts say.

For example, in the 1990s, in planning for a New Orleans nightmare scenario, the federal government figured it would pre-deploy nearby ships with pumps to remove water from the below-sea-level city and have hospital ships nearby, said James Lee Witt, who was FEMA director under President Clinton.

Federal officials said a hospital ship would leave from Baltimore on Friday.

"These things need to be planned and prepared for; it just doesn't look like it was," said Witt, a former Arkansas disaster chief who won bipartisan praise on Capitol Hill during his tenure.

FEMA said some of its response teams were prepared.

Some were prepared.

A long-time reader writes in with a <$NoAd$>good suggestion ...

Josh: Per your request for reader input on FEMA's place in current national disaster policy: I have no expertise in this area. My suggestion would be to ask someone who does, namely James Lee Witt himself. His company's website is here: http://www.wittassociates.com/1205.xml

Wesley Clark, incidentally, is his Vice Chairman.

I'm not a Clinton admirer as you know, but I remember what the pre-Witt FEMA was like. In terms of the difference he made to his agency, Witt was Clinton's best hire. If the changes he instituted didn't get institutionalized (for whatever reason) when the Bush people came in that's too bad, but you can't overrate the importance of having a first rate person running an agency like that. They are not easy to find.

Not a bad idea.

A great friend of mine in graduate school was Ari Kelman. And while I was poring over the details of English settlers and Indians in 17th century New England, he was busy writing an environmental history of New Orleans. So I guess he wins the relevant knowledge prize. But then I was always a long shot.

He's got an article up tonight at Slate about just why that city was built below sea level.

I assume smart producers will be ringing his phone off the hook in coming days.

Here's a question, and not a rhetorical one.

This column in yesterday's Post says that FEMA is being "systematically downgraded and all but dismantled by the Department of Homeland Security." Later it says: "This year it was announced that FEMA is to 'officially' lose the disaster preparedness function that it has had since its creation. The move is a death blow to an agency that was already on life support. In fact, FEMA employees have been directed not to become involved in disaster preparedness functions, since a new directorate (yet to be established) will have that mission."

It's a revealing piece. So, by all means, read the whole thing. Also see this much-linked article in Editor & Publisher by Will Bunch, which explores this and related issues.

But back to my question, which is, how was the chain of command for dealing with natural disasters and the operational ability of FEMA different last week than it was exactly four years ago (not an arbitrary number, since 9/11 led to many of the institutional changes in question) or eight years ago? There's no magic of course in those four capital letters. If FEMA and its responsibilities are being replaced by something else, then let's put that in the mix too. Nor should we forget that at least the concept, if not the execution, of consolidating various agencies into a new Department of Homeland Security had broad bipartisan support.

I'm not looking for rants. I'd like to get information that is as concrete and specific as possible. If you've seen an article that lays it out well, let me know. If you have expertise in this issue, I'd very much like to hear from you.

I've set up a thread here to discuss this. But if you have specific information I'd greatly appreciate if you can contact me directly as well.

Most all our attention is rightly, understandably focused on this disaster unfolding along the Gulf Coast. But take a moment to learn about this stampede on a bridge over the Tigris river today in which up to 1000 people died. Shi'a pilgrims were crossing the bridge when a fast-spreading rumor that a suicide bomber was about to detonate himself in the crowd led to panic and a rush to escape.

Late Update: A late report puts the number at a staggring 965 dead.

I'm sorry. I know we're supposed to be observing an accountability free moment for the president. But there are just too many examples out there of the ways in which his policies have contributed to and accentuated this crisis: systematic cuts in levee and pump construction around New Orleans (second article here), phasing out FEMA and the apparently the whole concept of national coordination of the response to natural disasters. That's a great idea, isn't it? Similar failings are discussed by Bruce W. Jentleson and Juliette Kayyem at TPMCafe. And, of course, example after example of cronies running critical agencies. Anyone want to give a buzz to Joe Allbaugh over at New Bridge Strategies?

The scene of any natural disaster, especially one of such grave magnitude, will invariably be chaotic. Much won't go according to plan. But a lot of people seem to have been caught unprepared in this mess, a lot of preparedness agencies appear to have missed a few beats in getting on top of it.

Yes, let's save everyone and everything we can. People on the scene and in the surrounding region are pulling together in amazing ways. But no more letting this man's failures become his own argument against accountability. It's always been a live-for-today presidency.

Like you I've been watching the escalating scale of the destruction down along the Gulf Coast. Rather than giving my own reactions or not-particularly-well-informed views of what's happening, I've put together a series of emails I've received over the last forty-eight hours from TPM Readers in the path of the storm. I've posted them here at TPMCafe.