Desert, Storm

tags: Iraq War, George W Bush, Katrina Hurricane

Paul A. Kramer is an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University and the author of "The Blood of Government: Race, Empire, the United States and the Philippines."

… The ascendancy of anti-terrorism can be told simply enough by following the money. Between 9/11 and August 2004, federal grants for anti-terrorism multiplied by a factor of more than 13, surging from $221 million to $3 billion, while FEMA’s main grants for state and local emergency management shrank from $270 million to $180 million; funds for disaster mitigation were chopped in half. By mid-2005, $77.9 million had been shifted from FEMA’s budget to other DHS programs; officials discovered entire functions and budget lines had vanished without warning. Officials at the National Emergency Management Agency, the managers’ professional association, noted with alarm that the budgets for state emergency agencies were declining, requiring cuts that hit poor states, many of them disaster-prone, the hardest.

The shift played out in painful ways across America’s varied landscape of natural hazard. When flooding in Northeast Iowa in May 2004 devastated more than 200 homes and businesses, there was not enough money for postdisaster mitigation, even as large checks were being cut to fight shadowy enemies in unlikely places. Don Greene, an emergency manager in Alabama, received $250,000 for chemical warfare suits but was denied funds for an emergency operations center that would streamline communications during tornados. “I really don’t think Osama Bin Laden wants to attack Shelby County,” he said.

The sidelining of natural hazards was easiest to see where they were ostensibly the focus. Take, for example, the report by 35 experts from intelligence, industry, the military, and academia who convened on Sept. 16, 2003, to study, as they put it, “How Terrorists Might Exploit a Hurricane.” They concluded that although hurricanes represented imperfect terrorist instruments, lone actors or small splinter groups could use them to scrutinize security responses, target evacuation routes and shelters, wage cyberattacks, or as “a diversion or a way to capitalize on the concentration of Federal resources of the country while an attack is staged.” In the aftermath, they might foment “public panic” by disseminating alarming rumors. If Washington were struck, religious extremists might use it “as a signal to attack” or claim that it was “a sign of God condemning the United States.”

Emergency managers pushed back. Speaking before a House committee in April 2005, David Liebersbach, NEMA’s president, warned that “changing the focus of preparedness to weigh so heavily on terrorism could severely hamper the ability of state and local government capabilities to respond to a wide range of events with a higher likelihood of occurrence, such as natural disasters.” On July 27, 2005, he wrote Sens. Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman, heads of the Senate subcommittee overseeing Homeland Security, that FEMA’s “long-standing mission of preparedness for all types of disasters” had been “forgotten.” Three weeks later—two weeks before Katrina—he and a NEMA delegation told DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and his top deputies in Washington that “they were weakening emergency management with potentially disastrous consequences.”

One improbable guardian of the all-hazards principle was Michael Brown. Brown’s appointment as FEMA’s director was pure gravy-train: He was a college friend of Joseph Allbaugh, and his previous job as commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association was easy shorthand for incompetence and nepotism. Brown was inexperienced at managing disasters; inflexible when confronted with political realities he didn’t like; and inclined to happy-talk, overpromise, and exercise an undue faith in the power of positive thinking, especially in front of cameras. But he was also an avid student and defender of the all-hazards principle that DHS was undermining, with a strong sense that FEMA’s mandate should remain broad.

Brown told higher-ups, albeit in muted tones, of his worries about the toll FEMA’s securitizing host was taking on the agency’s budget, staff, and mission….

Read entire article at Slate

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