The politics of hurricane relief

In 2004, swing-state Florida voters slammed by hurricanes received lots of help and close personal attention from President Bush. But there's no election this year.

Published September 5, 2005 7:18PM (EDT)

As they look back on the wreckage wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the bewildered survivors of the life-changing storm must be mulling over all sorts of hypothetical scenarios. What if the levees had held? What if more people had been evacuated? What if search-and-rescue missions had started earlier?

A less obvious what-might-have-been worth considering is, what if Katrina had struck during an election year? Would the Bush administration have swooped in with a more muscular, proactive response to the catastrophe? After all, the administration's previous track record on hurricane relief might lead one to believe its performance this time could have been far superior.

FEMA's often invisible and incompetent reaction to the devastation in New Orleans stands in sharp contrast to the way the relief agency and the entire Bush administration sprang into action last summer as a series of deadly hurricanes -- Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne -- battered the crucial swing state of Florida just weeks before Election Day.

There's no question that the scale of the New Orleans disaster far surpasses what Florida faced. But even so, a look back at the administration's relief efforts in 2004 indicates that a quick response to a potentially politically damaging situation commanded a higher priority from the top levels of government back then than did the flooding of New Orleans in 2005.

That's not to say FEMA performed flawlessly during 2004. Some Florida emergency officials criticized FEMA's slow response rate last year. But overall, FEMA, and more importantly Bush, scored high ratings for their handling of the election-year hurricanes. No expense was spared bringing relief to storm victims who just happened to live in the most important swing state in the country.

While Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry, citing respect for the loss of life and devastation, stayed out of Florida for weeks during the crucial months of August and September, Bush surveyed hurricane-wracked communities on Aug. 15, Aug. 27, Sept. 8, Sept. 19 and Sept. 29.

Some FEMA insiders were so happy with how they handled Florida's flurry of election-year hurricanes that they made a serious pitch within the administration to get FEMA director Mike Brown, now a target of sustained criticism, promoted to homeland security chief.

"Homeland Security sources said after the hurricanes," reported a May 19 Washington Post article, "that Brown and his allies promoted him as a successor to Tom Ridge as Homeland Security secretary because of their contention that he helped deliver Florida to President Bush by efficiently responding to the Florida hurricanes." A FEMA spokeswoman denied the report at the time.

Floridians had good reason to be grateful. In the summer of 2004, FEMA handed out hurricane relief checks with wild abandon, doling out nearly $30 million to residents of Miami-Dade County to replace TVs, computers and microwaves, even though that county suffered little or no hurricane damage.

Writing last November for, which touts itself as "the independent business magazine of government," Charles Mahtesian noted, "Now that President Bush has won Florida in his 2004 reelection bid, he may want to draft a letter of appreciation to Michael Brown, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Seldom has any federal agency had the opportunity to so directly and uniquely alter the course of a presidential election, and seldom has any agency delivered for a president as FEMA did in Florida this fall."

President Bush undoubtedly benefited from the series of heartwarming photo-ops that followed in the wake of the storms, but according to Mahtesian, "The story on the ground was not Bush's hand-holding. Rather, it was FEMA's performance. By the end of September, three hurricanes later, the agency had processed 646,984 registrations for assistance with the help of phone lines operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Fifty-five shelters, 31 disaster recovery centers and six medical teams were in operation across the state."

In other words, FEMA was in overdrive.

Standing alongside Florida's Gov. Jeb Bush at a press conference on Sept. 3 as Hurricane Frances approached, Brown bragged, "FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security are bringing in literally thousands of assets to respond to Hurricane Frances. Two of the most important things that we're doing are to focus on life-sustaining and lifesaving efforts."

In a press release issued just one week before the election, FEMA crowed, "Florida Disaster Aid Tops $2 Billion." The public proclamation was part of a torrent of FEMA press releases trumpeting its Florida relief efforts.

Brown, who spent the 1990s as the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, came to his FEMA job with a clear political background. By all indications Brown's only qualification for running the agency FEMA was that he was a college buddy of Joe Allbaugh, Bush's chief of staff while governor of Texas. Allbaugh handpicked Brown for a job as general counsel at FEMA, and he quickly ascended the promotion ladder.

But Brown's current performance is a far cry from those halcyon days in 2004. Surprisingly energized press coverage has eviscerated him for a series of embarrassing gaffes. Last week, he is on record as having first said he thought Katrina was going to be a "standard hurricane," blaming victims for not heeding evacuation warnings, and insisting the relief effort was "going relatively well." Worst of all, he confessed on live television that he had not even realized that more than 10,000 people had been trapped inside the New Orleans Convention Center for days.

The administration's confusion, compared to 2004, was not confined to Brown. On "Meet the Press," Brown's boss, Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff, said the crucial 17th Street levee broke on Monday night or Tuesday morning; it broke on Monday morning.

The White House has received sharp criticism for its slow response to the New Orleans catastrophe. But last year Bush and his inner circle were remarkably proactive during storm season. Just two days after Hurricane Charley hit the state's Gulf Coast, Bush took a helicopter ride over the region. Joining him to survey the damage were his brother Jeb Bush, FEMA director Brown, White House chief-of-staff Andrew Card and White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Then one month before the election, Bush took the unusual measure of ordering FEMA to pay 90 percent of the costs local Florida agencies accrued in the wake of the hurricanes. Traditionally, FEMA only covers 75 percent of the costs not covered by insurance. The directive covered infrastructure repairs as well as police and fire department overtime.

Partisan politics were certainly in the air during the busy hurricane season. Specifically, one FEMA consultant, in an e-mail dated Sept. 3, 2004, recommended that "top-level people from FEMA and the White House need to develop a communication strategy and an agreed-upon set of themes and communications objectives." He stressed, "Communication consultants from the President's re-election campaign should be brought in." FEMA officials insisted they did not follow the consultant's advice.

Regardless, the hands-on strategy worked. One Gallup Poll from August 2004 found 71 percent of Florida voters approved the way Bush had handled the hurricane onslaughts. In October, a Mason-Dixon Florida Poll found that 13 percent of undecided voters said Bush's performances during the hurricanes would make them "more likely" to vote for him.

In the immediate wake of the president's reelection, USA Today noted that in Florida, "Bush also was helped by his brother Jeb, a popular two-term governor. The president got credit from voters for bringing the state federal aid after Florida was battered by four hurricanes in August and September." Bush's brother Jeb shared that analysis, telling a local Jacksonville, Fla., television station on Nov. 3, 2004, that the president deserved Florida's electoral support because he'd been "darn good" to the state, specifically mentioning his role in garnering generous relief for storm victims.

President Bush clearly wanted to avoid a repeat of the August 1992 FEMA fiasco, which many observers say contributed to his father's reelection defeat. That Florida hurricane was named Andrew and its 170-mph winds killed 23 people and leveled parts of South Florida. FEMA's slow-footed response morphed into a political defeat for Bush, Sr. -- already criticized for being out of touch with everyday Americans -- when one county's emergency manager famously pleaded, "Where the hell is the cavalry?"

In 2004, Scripps Howard News Service, noting the political defeat Hurricane Andrew delivered 12 years earlier, reported, "While there are similarities between Andrew and Charley in their devastating impacts, early signs indicate a major difference: The response by the federal and state governments is quicker and better this time. Gov. Jeb Bush sought federal help Friday while Charley was still in the Gulf of Mexico. President Bush approved the aid about an hour after the hurricane made landfall. By Monday afternoon, the cavalry seemed to be in place."

On Sunday's "Meet the Press," an emotional Aaron Broussard, president of Louisiana's badly flooded Jefferson Parish, complained that federal officials had told him, "'The cavalry's coming, the cavalry's coming, the cavalry's coming.' I have just begun to hear the hoofs of the cavalry."

By comparison, in 2004 the FEMA cavalry was roaming all over Florida, including parts almost completely untouched by the hurricanes, such as Miami-Dade County. Within weeks of Hurricane Frances hitting the Florida coast, 19,500 residents of Miami-Dade applied for disaster relief. FEMA quickly approved 9,000 of the claims and set aside $28.9 million in tax-free grants to help them rebuild.

But rebuild from what? Frances never hit Miami-Dade. Locally, top sustained winds the day the storm struck only reached 47 mph and did minimal damage to just a handful of buildings. Just 5 percent of county residents even lost power, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which uncovered FEMA's unusual largess. The newspaper reported that within two days of Frances' arrival FEMA officials knew Miami-Dade had been unscathed, and yet the checks soon flowed into the county. "They were just doling out this money like it was Christmas," a spokeswoman for Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., told the Sun-Sentinel. (Eventually, 14 Miami-Dade residents who received assistance were indicted on fraud charges.)

The irony was that when he took over the relief agency in 2001, Allbaugh testified before Congress that he was worried FEMA had evolved into "an oversized entitlement program." But with an election looming in 2004, there appeared to be little concern about Bush's FEMA being too generous with relief funds.

The Miami-Dade financial windfall came courtesy of President Bush who, following the request of his brother, declared the county a disaster area as the hurricane began to strike the coast. But Miami-Dade officials never even asked for disaster designation, for a very simple reason: Frances came ashore 120 miles to the north.

The federal government's extreme generosity wasn't restricted to Miami-Dade. In 2004 an aide to Gov. Bush reported back to him that FEMA was handing out housing assistance "to everyone who needs it without asking for much information of any kind." As the Sun-Sentinel reported, "Even state officials were surprised at how quickly money flowed to Florida. The day after Hurricane Charley hit the west coast, the state's labor chief, Susan Pareigis, asked for a federal grant for unemployment assistance for storm victims. Four days later, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao 'was down personally' to award the money, Pareigis wrote in an Aug. 24 e-mail to the governor. 'Please express our sincere thank you for such an instantaneous response.'"

The paper reported the governor quickly forwarded the e-mail to White House Chief of Staff Card. "Please tell the President and your team how grateful we are," Gov. Bush wrote. "The response has been awesome from FEMA and other departments."

One has to wonder: How many appreciative e-mails from New Orleans do you suppose the White House has received in the last week?

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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