Wednesday, October 31, 2012
An Open Letter to Michael D. Brown
First, some background. Michael D. Brown was the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when Hurricane Katrina arrived in the Gulf of Mexico in 2005. The federal response to the storm, including its failure to prepare for managing the well-anticipated catastrophic effects of that storm, resulted in unnecessary deaths and a scandal that led to Mr. Brown's resignation in less than two weeks. Mr. Brown was a political supporter of President Bush, with no background in emergency management.
Critics of George W. Bush's presidency usually focus on politics. Hurricane Katrina, as much as the disasterous war in Iraq, laid bare something about that decade that goes beyond partisan politics. This was a time when federal government was shockingly incompetent. Unqualified people served in positions of tremendous responsibility, standards for competent management of important agencies were disdainfully lowered, factual analysis was subordinated to preferred opinion and political ideology even in matters of science. A disdain for government is what led to a horse guy running FEMA. That disdain had tragic consequences for our nation.
That is why Michael Brown's comments this week are newsworthy. For those who missed this, here's the summary. Michael Brown is now a media personality, co-host of a radio talk show based in Denver. Earlier this week, Brown was interviewed in a local paper and criticized the current administration's hurricane response as being too quick. The following day, on his own radio program, he kept talking.
Here is the letter I sent. It might be one of the kinder ones he gets this week.
Michael D. Brown
c/o 630 KHOW
4695 S. Monaco Street
Denver, CO 80237
Dear Mr. Brown,
You can easily guess what this letter is about. Let me begin on a note of compassion. I don’t know what it would feel like to be the head of FEMA in the face of a catastrophic storm like Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There you were, called by your president to public service. It was not an appointment for which you were obviously suited: you had been a lawyer and a manager of the International Arabian Horse Association, and did not have a background in emergency management. Emails that were eventually released from your time as the director of FEMA suggest you felt, at times, over your head. How would I have done? Probably not much better.
While no reasonable person could ever blame you for a hurricane, or any of the deaths that resulted, you shouldered an awesome responsibility. As Shakespeare wrote in one of his plays, some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. What he did not add is that sometimes, when that moment comes, men flounder. Some of the deaths in that storm could have been averted had FEMA been mobilized and ready to assist the states devastated by that catastrophe. There was plenty of time and warning to do that, yet FEMA did not; and you are responsible for that. It cannot be easy to live with that knowledge, assuming that you acknowledge it.
Having witnessed this history as a citizen, and knowing so many people affected by this week’s storm, I found your comments about federal response to Hurricane Sandy – first in an interview for the Denver Westword, and followed-up on your radio program -- painful, embarrassing, and worthy of shame. It is almost incomprehensible to me that you would attempt to make political criticism out of a competent disaster response, and suggest that advance preparations, including a prominent media presence alerting citizens that FEMA was prepared to respond rapidly to state requests for aid, was inappropriate or a matter of political calculation.
Perhaps it was inevitable, given the sad state of media discourse, that someone would politicize this natural disaster. But you, of all people? This is probably a topic on which you had better rest in a contemplative silence.
[Image: President Bush and Michael Brown read a map.]