Ex-FEMA Director Michael Brown recently told a congressional committee that he wasn’t an inexperienced manager who blew the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Summing up the efforts of state and local officials in Louisiana as “dysfunctional,” Brown scored his own work at FEMA in more glowing terms, i.e., “A pretty darn good job.”
That “pretty darn good job” included tying up hundreds of firefighters in red tape in Atlanta while bodies were floating down the streets of New Orleans and flames in the city were burning sky-high.
From eyewitness accounts, the bizarre scene in Atlanta is described in Time magazine’s Sept. 19 issue: “As flames blazed 400 miles away in New Orleans on Labor Day, about 600 firefighters from across the nation sat in an Atlanta hotel listening to a FEMA lecture on equal opportunity, sexual harassment and customer service. ‘Your job is going to be community relations,’ a FEMA official told them, according to Joe Calhoun, an assistant fire chief from Portage, Ind., who was there. ‘You’ll be passing out FEMA pamphlets and our phone number.’”
More accustomed to real work than bureaucratic bungling, firefighters didn’t take long to revolt: “The room, filled with many firefighters who, at FEMA’s request, had arrived equipped with rescue gear, erupted in anger. ‘This is ridiculous,’ one yelled back. ‘Our fire departments and mayors sent us down here to save people, and you’ve got us doing this?’ The FEMA official climbed atop a chair, Calhoun says, and tried to restore order. ‘You are now employees of FEMA, and you will follow orders and do what you’re told,’ he said, sounding more like the leader of an invading army than a rescue squad.”
I can’t help it, but those words come through in my mind with a storm trooper accent when I read them — “you vill follow orders,” “do vhat you’re told.”
In any case, picture the FEMA presentation on sexual harassment in Atlanta that was going on at exactly the time people were clinging to the rooftops of their flooded homes in New Orleans, waving white flags for help that wasn’t there, or stuck in their attics with no way out as the rising flood waters were coming up through the floorboards. And what’s the FEMA response to meet the immediate challenge? Delay for two days the rescue efforts of 600 firefighters in order to explain that a top priority of the central planners is the elimination of all behavior that might be considered sexist or insufficiently sensitive.
Imagine the problems that FEMA worries about. A guy swinging on the end of a cable from a helicopter might say a bad word while he’s trying to strap up a woman who’s stranded on the roof of her flooded and collapsing house. And, God forbid, call the lawyers if he puts his hand on the wrong part of her leg as they swing their way back up to the helicopter.
Looking down from their planes as they were circling a city in ruins, what was in the minds of these top bureaucrats at FEMA? That there was a big potential for lawsuits down there, endless numbers of desperate women who can’t wait to get their litigious hands on a chauvinist rescuer and drag him to court?
In other FEMA news, the agency announced it has arranged to rent three luxury cruise liners — Ecstasy, Sensation and Holiday — from Carnival Cruise Lines to house Katrina refugees for six months. And there might be more ships. “These are not the last three,” said FEMA spokesman James McIntyre.
The three luxury ships, combined, can house a maximum of 7,000 people. The six-month rental price to America’s taxpayers is $192 million, plus the Federal Emergency Management Agency has agreed to pay up to $44 million in other “pass through” costs, i.e. fuel, etc., and agreed to refurbish the ships afterwards if it’s necessary.
Let’s say it comes to $266 million — $192 million, $44 million, plus $10 million for each ship that Carnival says is necessary at the end for refurbishment. For the 7,000 passengers, for a six-month rent, that divides out to $38,000 per person. For a family of three, that’s $114,000 for six months. For a family of four, it’s $152,000 — and then they’re homeless again!
It would’ve been cheaper to give everyone a free house.
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