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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Disasters and Meta-Disasters 

In a major article for Rolling Stone, Eric Klinenberg and Thomas Frank address the gutting of FEMA, the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security as a cash cow for administration cronies, and the ongoing exploitation of the New Orleans tragedy as a tool to roll back the New Deal and the welfare state. "No authority for disaster relief. That is a level of free-market supremacy that even George W. Bush has never dared to dream of":
The most glaring example of the for-profit marketization of DHS came on September 26th, barely a month after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, when some 300 corporate lobbyists and lawyers assembled for the Katrina Reconstruction Summit to learn how they could cash in on the federal effort to rebuild New Orleans. Such how-to sessions are nothing new in Washington, of course, and private firms certainly have a major role to play in relocating the 1.5 million people uprooted by the worst natural disaster in American history. What was extraordinary about this particular summit, however, was that it was held not in some conference room at a Beltway hotel, but in an office building of the U.S. Senate. It was a seminar on profiteering, held on the grounds of the very institution to be plundered . . . .

The boundaries between business and government had been effectively erased in 2002, when Bush created the Department of Homeland Security. Although the administration initially opposed the idea of an umbrella agency to oversee domestic security after 9/11, it wound up staging a political coup by approving DHS on the condition that it be conducted as a massive merger-and-acquisition deal. In what amounted to a hostile takeover, the self-proclaimed "MBA president" stuffed twenty-two federal agencies and more than 183,000 government employees into a single, gigantic department committed to shifting as much work as possible from the public to the private sector.

Bush appointed inexperienced friends to top posts, outsourced essential government services to the party's corporate backers and gave anti-terrorism programs priority over everything else, including disaster preparedness. Homeland Security became the only federal agency ever designed to hollow out government and enrich an administration's corporate cronies. "It was a brilliant tactic," says Don Kettl, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. "The Bush administration used DHS to seize power" . . . .

To be honest, FEMA was a mess from the very beginning. Jimmy Carter created the agency in 1979 to coordinate the nation's disaster planning, promoting an "all hazards" approach that would direct the federal response to "the full range of emergencies." During the Reagan years, however, the agency jettisoned its focus on natural disasters in favor of nuclear-war survival schemes and plans for declaring martial law. It was stuff right out of The X-Files -- in fact, the militarized FEMA of the Eighties served as an inspiration for the show. The FEMA director responsible for these flights of militaristic fantasy, former National Guard Gen. Louis Giuffrida, resigned in 1985 after he was caught hiring cronies, doling out no-bid contracts to friends and using agency funds for a flashy apartment in Maryland. But in his short, strange tenure, the first glimmer of the GOP's broader priorities began to emerge: a militarized agency that would give sinecures to loyalists and steer lush profits to the well-connected . . . .

Then Bill Clinton came into office with a novel idea: make FEMA work the way it's supposed to. Clinton appointed James Lee Witt, who had earned praise for his work heading the Office of Emergency Services in Arkansas, as head of FEMA and elevated the agency to Cabinet-level status. Witt reorganized the office from top to bottom, producing immediate results. In a 1998 story criticizing the Clinton administration for insufficiently reforming federal agencies, The Washington Monthly made an exception for Witt and his team of emergency managers. "FEMA's former critics hail it as a first-rate agency," the magazine gushed. "In sixteen recent surveys of disaster victims, more than eighty percent of respondents approved of the way the agency was doing its job." Bush himself praised the agency in his first debate with Al Gore in 2000.

But the next year, when Bush took office, he set out to replace FEMA's experienced staff with political cronies. His choice for director was his campaign manager, Joseph Allbaugh, who had no experience in emergency management. Veteran staffers were demoralized. "There are plenty of Republican emergency managers, fire chiefs or police chiefs around," says Leo Bosner, an emergency-management specialist who has worked at FEMA since its beginning in 1979 and now heads the agency's union. "And they pull this guy who's a campaign manager?" . . . .

The bizarre episodes of bad planning and wasteful spending might be funny, if they didn't involve squandering taxpayer dollars intended for securing the nation. Awash in homeland-security funds, small counties in Iowa splurged on traffic cones and wall clocks with built-in hidden cameras. Columbus, Ohio, bought bulletproof vests for dogs in the city's fire department. The District of Columbia paid kids in a summer jobs program to come up with a rap song about emergency preparedness. "Nationally, we just kind of threw money against the wall," said Tim Daniel, former director of homeland security for Missouri, which received $7.2 million to buy 13,000 hazmat suits -- one for every law-enforcement officer in the state. New York and New Jersey, which handle twelve percent of the nation's cargo, received barely one percent of federal funds intended to protect vulnerable ports, while Sunoco and other oil companies were awarded government money to beef up security at their for-profit facilities.
Then came Katrina -- and everything changed. Well, actually, scratch that: nothing changed. Not a fucking thing changed. Read the rest here.

UPDATE: We missed this little nugget yesterday, but luckily our indefatigable colleague Lukery Land was on the job:
Internal meeting notes released by a union official say Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told employees that many changes planned for federal disaster response were a public relations ploy.

The purported statements were in typed notes issued Tuesday by a union representative for federal emergency workers. A Homeland Security Department spokesman said Chertoff considers the post-Hurricane Katrina changes one of his highest priorities and never would have made such comments.

Under the heading ``Retooling/Chertoff's remarks,'' the typed notes said, ``The re-tooling is partially a perception ploy to make outsiders feel like we've actually made changes for the better.''
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