Assume the Position
Friday, September 09, 2005
Associated Press Katrina Reporting Turns Despicable
I wasn't going to blog about Katrina — I haven't blogged about anything lately — but this Associated Press story by Ted Bridis is so completely twisted that calling it despicable is mild, and people like John Scalzi fell for it.
September 07, 2005
FEMA Chief Sent Help Only After Storm Hit
WASHINGTON (AP) - The top U.S. disaster official waited hours after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast before he proposed to his boss sending at least 1,000 Homeland Security workers into the region to support rescuers, internal documents show.
Part of the mission, according to the documents obtained by The Associated Press, was to "convey a positive image" about the government's response for victims.
He waits until the storm hits, and then he actually has the gall to suggest that part of the mission should be to try to make the government look good.
Michael Brown shouldn't just be fired. He should be shot. Even better: He should be turned over to the survivors.
The next three paragraphs of Bridis' story:
Acknowledging that such a move would take two days, Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, sought the approval from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff roughly five hours after Katrina made landfall on Aug. 29.
Before then, FEMA had positioned smaller rescue and communications teams across the Gulf Coast. But officials acknowledged the first department-wide appeal for help came only as the storm raged.
Brown's memo to Chertoff described Katrina as "this near catastrophic event" but otherwise lacked any urgent language. The memo politely ended, "Thank you for your consideration in helping us to meet our responsibilities."
Sounds pretty damning if true, but it's not an accurate representation of what Brown was requesting. (I'm not going to defend Brown's and FEMA's mistakes, nor Brown's seeming lack of qualifications to head FEMA. However, if the level of distortion perpetrated by Bridis reflects the norm of press reporting on this disaster, it tends to call the other accusations against FEMA into question.) Brown was requesting volunteers from other DHS agencies to assist in the post-rescue recovery work such as getting information about available disaster aid to the victims.
On August 31st, Daniel Pulliam wrote about the request at GovExec.com:
FEMA seeks 2,000 Homeland Security volunteers for disaster assistance
Michael Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has asked for 2,000 Homeland Security Department employees to volunteer for two weeks working in the areas struck by Hurricane Katrina.
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Brown wrote that 1,000 people are needed from the department within the next 48 hours and an additional 1,000 within the next week, the Associated Press reported.
Those that volunteer are being told that the work hours will be long and outdoors.
Notice that Pulliam got the story from an Associated Press report. That's right, on August 31st, the AP reported the story straight:
FEMA needs 2,000 volunteers in two weeks
Updated: 08/31/2005 12:08:11 PM
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Federal Emergency Management Agency is seeking 2,000 Homeland Security Department workers to spend two weeks carrying out duties in the area devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
FEMA director Michael Brown told Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in a letter that he needs 1,000 people within 48 hours and 2,000 within a week.
Training will be provided in Emmitsburg, Md., Atlanta or Orlando and special skills, such as being bilingual or having a commercial driver's license are important.
The volunteers are being told they must be able to work long hours, outdoors, all day and to bring:
Brown's request was not for rescue workers, or people to deliver emergency supplies, or set up and staff shelters. This was a request for DHS agencies to allow employees unassociated with the disaster response to volunteer to work in what are essentially FEMA doorknocker brigades, aka "community-relations." These are the folks that try to ensure that everyone in the affected areas is informed of how to begin the process of applying for whatever federal aid they may qualify for. It is not a particularly urgent tasking, since these volunteers mostly end up going door-to-door in safe areas passing out information.
Of course, the only part of the mission related in Bridis' lead was that they were to "'convey a positive image' about the government's response for victims."
Brown's letter to Chertoff is available in PDF from the AP. The letter is dated August 29, 2005, and Bridis wrote that the request was made "roughly five hours after Katrina made landfall," so it was sometime the day before the levee breaches in New Orleans [became known outside of New Orleans. (See Sep 15 update.)] Here is the letter, slightly reformatted when converted to html:
MEMORANDUM TO: Michael Chertoff
FROM: Michael D. Brown
SUBJECT: DHS Response to Katrina
We are requesting your assistance to make available DHS employees willing to deploy as soon as possible for a two-week minimum field assignment to serve in a variety of positions. We anticipate needing at least 1000 additional DHS employees within 48 hours and 2000 within 7 days. Attached is a list of requirements that employees will have to meet before deploying.
It is beneficial to use DHS employees as it allows us to be more efficient responding to the needs of this disaster and it reinforces the Department's All-Hazard's Capabilities. Also, DHS employees already have background investigations, travel cards and badges, all items that normally delay filling our surge workforce. FEMA Response and Recovery operations are a top priority of the Department and as we know, one of yours.
We will also want to identify staff with specialized skills such as bilingual capabilities, Commercial Driver's License (CDL), and logistics capabilities.
Thank you for your consideration in helping us meet our responsibilities in this near catastrophic event.
You must have your supervisor's approval.
Role of Assigned Personnel:
Establish and maintain positive working relationships with disaster affected communities
and the citizens of those communities.
Training will be provided:
A roster of available personnel will be developed and made available as components
identify personnel for deployment.
Point of Contact to accept and process your assignment:
Human Resource Operations Branch, 202-646-4040
Selected personnel will either go to Atlanta, Georgia for Community Relations Training or Orlando, Florida for all other Training and assignments. After which they will be deployed to a disaster Joint Field Office (FCO) when conditions are safe. Some organizational clothing and equipment will be supplied.
Type of personal supplies you should bring:
I find nothing wrong with the substance of Brown's request to Chertoff, nor with its timing. Not even inclusion of the responsibility to "convey a positive image of disaster operations…" Perhaps Bridis and Scalzi would have been happier if Brown had suggested DHS agencies send their slovenliest slugs and disreputable deadwood, anybody they would fire if civil service rules allowed it, because their role should be to be as disagreeable and nasty as possible so they won't be upstaged by the MoveOn crowd.
That said, there are at least two mistakes DHS and FEMA made related to this aspect of the recovery effort.
The first was Russ Knocke of DHS even speaking to Bridis when he apparently didn't know what he was talking about or allowed Bridis to rattle him into making an unfounded rationalization:
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said Brown had positioned front-line rescue teams and Coast Guard helicopters before the storm. Brown's memo on Aug. 29 aimed to assemble the necessary federal work force to support the rescues, establish communications, and coordinate with victims and community groups, Knocke said.
Instead of rescuing people or recovering bodies, these employees would focus on helping victims find the help they needed, he said.
"There will be plenty of time to assess what worked and what didn't work," Knocke said. "Clearly there will be time for blame to be assigned and to learn from some of the successful efforts."
Brown's memo told employees that among their duties, they would be expected to "convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials, community organizations and the general public."
"FEMA response and recovery operations are a top priority of the department and as we know, one of yours," Brown wrote Chertoff. He proposed sending 1,000 Homeland Security Department employees within 48 hours and 2,000 within seven days.
Knocke said the 48-hour period indicated for the Homeland employees was to ensure they had adequate training. "They were training to help the lifesavers," Knocke said.
That last remark about "training to help the lifesavers" is probably wrong, but its the perfect mistake for Bridis to hook the story to actual rescue efforts.
Why do I think Knocke was wrong? Because the second mistake was sending the same kind of volunteer request to firefighters across the nation:
Not long after some 1,000 firefighters sat down for eight hours of training, the whispering began: "What are we doing here?"
As New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded on national television for firefighters - his own are exhausted after working around the clock for a week - a battalion of highly trained men and women sat idle Sunday in a muggy Sheraton Hotel conference room in Atlanta.
Many of the firefighters, assembled from Utah and throughout the United States by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thought they were going to be deployed as emergency workers.
Instead, they have learned they are going to be community-relations officers for FEMA, shuffled throughout the Gulf Coast region to disseminate fliers and a phone number: 1-800-621-FEMA.
Using trained rescue personnel for the community-relations effort seems to be a misapplication of resources even if it was done to mitigate the twin liability issues of potential harm to volunteers and potential harm caused by volunteers. It's no wonder some of the firefighters were disgusted if they didn't understand what they were volunteering for. Be that as it may, I am more than reasonably certain this is the same function for which Brown was requesting DHS volunteers to be trained in Atlanta. (There is nothing to indicate the training in other locations deals with rescue efforts, either, and I hazard the guess that it may deal with federal aid to local governments while the Atlanta training concentrates on federal aid to individuals.)
In any event, Ted Bridis' Associated Press article is a prime example of how reporters can carry on a grand misrepresentation without ever stating an absolute falsehood.
UPDATE: Brown relieved of Katrina command, still head of FEMA (for how long?) The breaking news from the Associated Press, with some contribution by "Ted Bridis in Washington," but nothing egregious jumps out in the story. (Via Michael Gersh, who uses the Yahoo link to the story, and isn't sorry to see Brown go. Nor am I, though I'd prefer folks stick to valid justifications, as Gersh seems to, rather than rely on misrepresentations like that by Bridis.)
UPDATE - September 12, 2005: How long? About three days:
Federal Emergency Management Agency director Mike Brown resigned Monday, three days after losing his on-site command of the Hurricane Katrina relief effort. The White House picked a top FEMA official with three decades of firefighting experience as his replacement.
UPDATE - September 15, 2005: Apparently the levee breaches began with the storm surge on the 29th but communications problems prevented that information from being disseminated within the government and to the public until the next day. That has caused many people, myself included, to say the breaches occurred the day after Katrina hit. According to Glasser and Grunwald in the Washington Post, "Communications were so impossible the Army Corps of Engineers was unable to inform the rest of the government for crucial hours that levees in New Orleans had been breached."