You Go Into A Disaster With The FEMA You Have

Bloomberg writes this morning that FEMA’s top-level officials are experienced in politics rather than emergency management:

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency’s upper ranks are mostly staffed with people who share two traits: loyalty to President George W. Bush and little or no background in emergency management”¦ The lack of experience among Brown’s top lieutenants in responding to disasters was revealed by Hurricane Katrina, said Paul Light, a professor of organizational studies at New York University. It also marks a reversion to the days when the agency was treated as a “turkey farm” — a place where political operatives could get high-level jobs — after being led by professionals during the Clinton administration, he said.

What happens when you have a disaster response agency stacked with political operatives? You get politically-charged decisions about where to commit resources. In 2004, four hurricanes barreled down on the crucial swingstate of Florida in the heat of the presidential election campaign season. So the operatives at FEMA did what they knew best.

In March 2005, the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel uncovered official records that showed “Bush re-election concerns played part in FEMA aid.” The article reported that Bush campaign staffers were brought in to ensure that a “huge mess” didn’t break out in Florida from the hurricane aftermath that might damage Bush’s re-election chances. As a result, the response to the Florida hurricanes differed drastically from that of Hurricane Katrina:

Florida Hurricanes: Housing Assistance Given To Those Who Didn’t Even Ask

Federal Emergency Management Agency was handing out housing assistance “to everyone who needs it without asking for much information of any kind.”

Katrina: Insufficient Temporary Housing

“[P]roblems were worsened by a late evacuation order and insufficient emergency shelter for as many as 100,000 people.”

Florida Hurricanes: National Guard Put on Alert For Immediate Response

“It amazed me how they got over 4,000 National Guard troops in there that quick.”

Katrina: Guard Weren’t Called In

Several states ready and willing to send National Guard troops to the rescue in New Orleans didn’t get the go-ahead until days after the storm struck – a delay nearly certain to be investigated by Congress.

Florida Hurricanes: Prepared In Advance

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, at FEMA’s request, is coordinating the staging of 100 truckloads of water and 100 truckloads of ice at operational centers in Florida.

Katrina: Not Enough Ice and Water

Never mind the heat, never mind the stench, never mind the toilet problems, Tom Stark would be a lot happier if he had a steady supply of ice. “The ice is just killing me,” said Stark, 52, of Riverside, who is in Louisiana on disaster relief duties with the American Red Cross. “People are going to die from not having ice.

One thing about the federal government, you can’t say it reacted too swiftly to Hurricane Katrina. It’s been nearly a week since the storm made landfall in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, and still there are people without food and shelter, much less clean drinking water.