Brownie and the gang

The problems at FEMA go far deeper than embattled chief Michael Brown.

Published September 9, 2005 3:52PM (EDT)

Salon editorial fellow J.J. Helland surveys the political patronage that crippled FEMA.

War Room reported yesterday on FEMA Director Michael Brown's dubious professional credentials -- specifically his record as a failed lawyer; a fallout with his previous employer, the International Arabian Horse Association, over charges of impropriety; and the patronage that landed him his plum assignments with FEMA. A new report on the Time magazine Web site delves deeper into Brown's lack of qualifications for his post.

Brown isn't the only senior official at the federal agency with little experience in dealing with natural disasters, and more evidence has emerged indicating that the agency's ability to adequately respond to disasters like Katrina has been totally undermined by political cronyism. The Los Angeles Times reports that Brown "is just one of at least five senior FEMA officials appointed under President Bush whose backgrounds showed few qualifications."

For example, Brown's acting deputy director, Patrick James Rhode, got his start in the television news industry before moving on to public relations work in Texas. After working as the deputy director of national advance operations for Bush's 2000 campaign and later as a special assistant to the president, Rhode was tapped for FEMA in 2003.

Meanwhile, before becoming director of FEMA's Recovery Division, Daniel Craig worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he "was responsible for Chamber-related legislative, political, and media initiatives in New England and the Atlantic Coast." Craig's professional experience also includes previous work as a lobbyist, campaign advisor and political fundraiser.

The Times article goes on to note that as recently as a year ago, the "head of a labor union representing FEMA workers sent a letter to members of Congress charging that 'emergency managers at FEMA have been supplanted on the job by politically connected contractors and by novice employees with little background or knowledge' of disaster management."

The letter offered the prescient warning that "as ... professionalism diminishes, FEMA is gradually losing its ability to function and to help disaster victims."

That sentiment was echoed in a report today in the Washington Post, in which experts referred to a "brain drain" when discussing FEMA's lack of experienced managers familiar with emergency management. According to I.M. "Mac" Destler, a professor from the University of Maryland, FEMA "has gone downhill within the department, drained of its resources and leadership ... The crippling of FEMA was one important reason why it [the federal response to Katrina] failed."

Considering the Bush administration's woefully inept response to the devastation wrought by Katrina, it's clear that Bush administration patronage has hobbled FEMA -- with fatal consequences for the people affected by the hurricane.

But of course you wouldn't know that from listening to Vice President Dick Cheney. He defended Bush's FEMA appointees yesterday, saying, "You've got to have people at the top who respond to and are selected by presidents, and you pick the best people you can to do the jobs that need to be done ... We've also got some great career professionals, an absolute and vital part of the operation  couldn't do it without them."

Of course we couldn't have done it without them. That's the problem.

By J.J. Helland

J.J. Helland is Salon's editorial fellow in New York.

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