Tuesday, December 20, 2005


A couple weeks ago I read a buried story in the Wall Street Journal about Florida Emergency Management Director Craig Fugate and Hurricane Wilma. Mr. Fugate and Governor Bush got into a power struggle with FEMA over who was in charge of relief efforts. Doesn't that sound petty? People need food and water and rescuing and the bureaucracy is squabbling over who reports to who. Full disclosure: I am a Florida resident, although a Minnesota native, due to Florida's (tenuous, but holding) positions on state and individual rights. In particular, no income tax. South Florida's entitlement mentality is slowly permeating the state's politics, but for now, it's a safe haven, as far as I'm concerned.

Hurricane Wilma's trackThe Wall Street Journal reported on December 8th:
The lush villas had survived the October storm unscathed but Mr. Fugate was agitated. He thought he had outmaneuvered federal emergency officials to take control of the relief effort, but now discovered that federal agents had been on the island, without his knowledge, conducting their own review. "Unbelievable," he fumed. "Washington managed to sneak in some spies after all."

It turns out that despite Florida's insistence that they had the situation under control, the federal government decided that Hurrican Katrina meant that states were incapable of handling disaster reponse on their own. Take a look at the left-hand sidebar of the Florida Division of Emrgency Management website and tell me they haven't got a grip on the situation.

So due to the political beating the federal government agencies (particularly FEMA, and, yes, probably President Bush himself) took over Louisiana's complete lack of preparedness for a disaster, the feds decided to micromanage Hurricane Wilma, resulting in trampling all over states' rights. Bear with me here, the article isn't available online. Here are some excerpts:

The Bush administration says Katrina showed that some states can't deal with large-scale disasters. The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, wants to intervene in response efforts and is pressing local officials to vet their emergency plans. It's also looking to equip locally based federal employees with cameras and communications gear to provide Washington with real-time disaster information.

Adm. Timothy J. Keating, who heads U.S. Northern Command, a newly created military body overseeing homeland defense, has told lawmakers that active-duty forces should be given complete authority for responding to catastrophic disasters. President Bush has already suggested that the military be ready to quarantine cities and states in the event of a flu pandemic.

Local officials, from small-town sheriffs to big-state governors, say Louisiana's problems during Katrina were the exception, not the rule. They say the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon are over-reaching and that a federal takeover of relief work will make matters worse. The head of the Washington state National Guard, Maj. Gen. Timothy J. Lowenberg, suggested in emails to colleagues that Adm. Keating's suggestion amounted to a "policy of domestic regime change."

Days before Wilma churned through his state, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush appeared before Congress alongside the governors of Texas and Arizona. "I can say with certainty that federalizing emergency response to catastrophic events would be a disaster as bad as Hurricane Katrina," he told lawmakers. "If you federalize, all the innovation, creativity and knowledge at the local level would subside."

Florida may be the best-equipped state to handle disasters because of its experience tackling the big storms that have battered it regularly since 1992. Hurricane Wilma was the sixth major hurricane of the record-breaking 2005 storm season and the third to reach Category 5 status. At its peak on Oct. 19, Wilma was the most powerful Atlantic storm ever recorded.

The Christian Science Monitor notes that expanding military responsibility domestically is a breach of the principles upon which our nation was founded:
Gaining currency at the highest levels of the Pentagon is the idea that during a catastrophic event - either natural or terrorist - the Department of Defense should replace the Department of Homeland Security as the agency in charge of the federal response.

In many ways, the notion is limited, affecting only how the federal government deploys its own resources. Yet in a nation founded on a distrust of military control, any suggestion of giving the armed forces greater authority on American soil faces centuries-old skepticism. Moreover, it comes at a time when governors are already feeling besieged by an administration that, they feel, is too eager to wrest power from them.

So what the hell is the Department of Homeland Security for, anyway? A black hole in which to shovel money? Fugate has had a significant impact on Florida's disaster relief and recovery efforts and in the disaster response field in general:

Mr. Fugate has created a response system to prepare Florida for everything from tornadoes to terrorists. The state coordinates purchasing of supplies, for example, so that emergency services can work together. Even fire-hose connections are the same from Key West to Panama City. New York, by contrast, has at least six different hose connections, meaning Albany firefighters can't use their equipment in Manhattan without an adaptor.

So to prevent another Katrina-like embarrassment (don't forget, Wilma was the strongest storm ever recorded in Caribbean at one point before it hit Florida), the federal government wanted control of the situation. If I wanted something done properly, the last thing I would do is give control of the situation to the U.S. government. From the Wall Street Journal, the punchline! (Emphasis mine.)

Mr. Fugate had his first run-in with Homeland Security at around that time, just before Rita passed over the Florida Keys en route to Texas. During a video conference, he says top Homeland Security officials pressed him for trivial details about his evacuation plans and demanded explanations for his every action.

According to Mr. Fugate and other officials present, he lost his cool. "I told them in no uncertain terms that I had moved more people during last year's hurricanes than had ever been moved before, and that I would be happy to sit there answering their stupid questions, but that I had a job to do."

State emergency coordinators dubbed Washington's constant requests for information "reindeer games," a reference to the 2000 movie with that title in which the phrase described a pointless exercise. Mr. Fugate kept a set of costume antlers in his office and in the run-up to Wilma he recalls holding them in his lap before one video conference call. Gov. Bush asked him what they were for. "In case they ask me stupid questions," he says he replied.

With Wilma, Washington wasn't asking questions -- it wanted control. On Oct. 18, Lt. General Robert T. Clark, commander of the Fifth Army at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, called the head of Florida's National Guard and said he wanted to start flying in equipment to establish a Joint Task Force Command, federal and state officials confirm.

The National Guard chief, Air Force General Douglas Burnett, says in a later interview that he was taken aback. "Did we need a three-star general from Texas to come to direct our response? No, we did not," he says.

Gov. Bush called Mr. Chertoff to complain. According to a senior federal official who overheard the call, Gov. Bush told the Homeland Security secretary that the federal government's unilateral actions were "insulting" to him personally, Mr. Fugate and all Florida citizens. Mr. Bush's spokeswoman and Homeland Security officials says they won't discuss details of the call.

The turning point took place at the daily video conference call on the morning of Oct. 20. Present were officials from Northcom, Homeland Security, FEMA, a handful of other agencies and the White House. Then, Mr. Fugate pulled off the equivalent of a boardroom coup.

Without warning federal officials, he announced the creation of "Wilma Command" to oversee the response. It was done according to the rules of Homeland Security's own National Incident Management System, or NIMS, mandated by President Bush after 9/11 to ensure that all levels of government worked from the same playbook. Its bedrock principle: one incident, one commander, no matter how many agencies send help.

It's a relatively new process that few state emergency officials have mastered. But Mr. Fugate knew what to do. He said the Wilma Command team would include himself, Gen. Burnett and Justin DeMello, the head of FEMA in Florida who was close with state officials. Then Mr. Fugate reached off camera and pulled Mr. Bush into the frame. "I'd now like to introduce the Incident Commander," he said, "The governor of Florida."

"Craig had outmaneuvered them and they knew it," recalls Mr. DeMello, the local FEMA representative. "There was nothing for them to say as under the NIMS they are required to support the incident commander." Mr. Fugate took the 300 satellite telephones Homeland Security had sent for its reporting teams and gave them to local emergency workers.

Homeland Security officials continued lobbying Florida to allow Mr. Chertoff to name a Coast Official Guard as the "Principal Federal Officer." But by Oct. 23, a day before landfall, they had given up. Northcom never activated the Fifth Army.

A beautiful stroke of administrative genius from Mr. Fugate in my opinion. The federal government assumes it has control over things that it has no business interfereing in, in every aspect of American life. Here's an idea: fix the roads, keep the lights on, defend the country and leave me the hell alone!

This year's hurricane season illustrates the growing powers of the federal government over the states. What voters need to realize when making their decisions at the polls is that we are a country made up of 50 semi-autonomous states. The more power we give to the federal government, regardless of good intentions, the more freedom we surrender. It's the nature of government to try to control as much as possible and up to us, as citizens of a nation under popular rule to prevent the federal government from slowly whittling away our rights.


Blogger Crazy Politico bloody well said...

The problem, post Katrina, is that the States take no heat, or get no credit, for what they do, or don't do.

Even after Wilma I watched folks on Fox News complaining that in 3 days FEMA hadn't delivered food, water, etc. They didn't mention the state agency, only FEMA.

Likewise, the newsies themselves didn't say it was Mr. Fugate who was in charge, they asked FEMA's director about what was happening in Florida.

So, while I agree that the feds were trying to usurp power that rightfully belongs to the state, the defacto standard now is that they do, and states are basically to be "held harmless" when they mess up.

20 December, 2005 12:26  

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