FOUR YEARS AGO TODAY, just hours after terrorists rammed passenger planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had already activated eight urban search-and-rescue teams in New York and four at the Pentagon. In the end, there were distressingly few victims in New York to rescue, but the continued swift and competent response of FEMA boosted the perception of President Bush as a strong, committed leader in a crisis.
How far things have fallen at FEMA, which is led by the types of unqualified political appointees who usually settle for an ambassadorship in one of the Benelux countries. It's been so since the agency's inception in 1979, to be sure, but at least President Clinton's crony at FEMA, James Lee Witt, had disaster-relief experience in Arkansas and proved exceptionally capable.
Bush political operative Joe Allbaugh inherited a tightly run and well-focused agency from Witt. There was no question about its ability to act independently during the terror attack.
Allbaugh's qualification for the job was that he'd been Bush's chief of staff when he was governor of Texas (where he did have some experience with disaster declarations), after which he was manager of the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign. Michael D. Brown's claim to succeed him stems almost entirely from the fact that he was Allbaugh's college roommate in Oklahoma. On Friday, Brown was sent packing back to Washington in the wake of FEMA's failure to provide water, food or rescue for days on end to victims of Hurricane Katrina. He would be dusting off his resume except that Time magazine found that he had at least inflated his smidgen of emergency planning experience, while the official announcement of his appointment to run FEMA omitted his embarrassing previous stint as a horse show commissioner (which also ended badly).
As The Times reported Friday, four other Bush appointees to top jobs at FEMA also had little or no qualifications for overseeing disaster relief.
Brown's replacement as chief of hurricane relief operations, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, comes from the only federal body to acquit itself with speed, honor and some heroism in the wake of Katrina.
As with the hurricane, there were warnings that FEMA was turning into a disaster. The union representing its career employees wrote to members of Congress last year that politically connected contractors and novices without disaster-relief experience had taken over and trashed FEMA's professionalism. There is a lot of predictable second-guessing in Washington about the wisdom of folding FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security (which the Bush administration initially opposed). But this debate misses the central point — organizational flow charts are of little consequence if the people leading the organizations are woefully unqualified.
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