Sunday, September 18, 2005

Brownie points for 'Brownie'

Speaking to the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Michael Brown, about his response to Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush said, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." That, in spite of a concurrent overwhelming din of criticism regarding FEMA's performance in the rescue of the residents of New Orleans and aide to recovery of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Certainly with his unmatched access to the finest intelligence, W. must have known about the numerous discrepancies in Brown's resume, and that his background in "emergency services" was wildly exaggerated. In fact, Brown's performance in the aftermath to Katrina led to his dismissal from the management of the disaster and sent him packing back to Washington, D.C. However, that lasted only a couple of days before piling on his questionable experience led to his subsequent resignation from FEMA.

W. has a long, storied track record of rewarding abject failure and promoting those whose incompetence rises above the rest, so it might come as no surprise to hear him giving "Brownie" points to the (former) Director. Nonetheless, could there be more to this commendation in the face of Brown's very public blunders than meets the eye? A look back to the last hurricane season exposes why W. expresses such loyalty to Brown.

In 2004, the state of Florida was struck by three hurricanes in one season. They happened to coincide with the forthcoming presidential election. A FEMA consultant noted in a three-page memo on the topic that the hurricanes could cause a "huge mess" that would negatively impact W.'s campaign, considering that Florida was a "battleground state."

How did FEMA, directed at the time by Brown, respond? A Florida official reported that FEMA began distributing funds in Florida "to everyone who needs it without asking for much information of any kind." Widespread mismanagement of disaster relief funds was uncovered in hundreds of Governor Jeb Bush's emails.

Not surprisingly, the nation heard nothing about this from the President's brother. The Sun-Sentinel had to threaten a lawsuit against the Governor's office to get them. Additionally, the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Richard Skinner, conducted a four-month audit of FEMA's Individuals and Households Program (IHP) in the Miami area following Hurricane Frances. What did the audit find?

It found that the Miami-Dade County area did not experience hurricane-force winds from Frances, and it questioned whether the area warranted the FEMA assistance it received at Jeb Bush's request. It found waste and poor controls in every level of FEMA's assistance program. For example, the report said FEMA paid $10-million to replace hundreds of household items even though only a bed was reported to be damaged. "Millions of individuals and households became eligible to apply for [money], straining FEMA's limited inspection resources to verify damages and making the program more susceptible to potential fraud, waste, and abuse."

Were these criticisms partisan? The chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, Senator Susan Collins, is a Republican. In reference to Brown, she said during a committee hearing that he:
"...approved massive payouts to replace thousands of televisions, air conditioners, beds, and other furniture, as well as a number of cars, without receipts, or proof of ownership or damage, and based solely on verbal statements by the residents, sometimes made in fleeting encounters at fast-food restaurants.

"It was a pay first, ask questions later approach. The inspector general's report identifies a number of significant control weaknesses that create a potential for widespread fraud, erroneous payments, and wasteful practices."
Why the uproar? Because with the impending presidential election, the DHS report on the IHP audit found that FEMA suddenly abandoned its controls it had previously used to ensure its emergency funding went to people who needed it. Instead, it wastefully distributed money to Miami-Dade County residents without the standard verifications, leading to incidents like the following:
  • FEMA awarded $13.1-million to Miami-Dade applicants for rental assistance and home repair and replacement. However, the implementation of the Housing Assistance component of the IHP was hampered by several procedural omissions and generally weak guidelines for performing inspections and documenting results.
  • FEMA provided $82,764 in expedited assistance to 114 applicants who were not, or may not have been, eligible. Those applicants reportedly had insurance, did not report a need for housing, or reported that their homes were not damaged.
  • Sufficient criteria were not in place to reasonably assure that the $9-million of rental assistance provided to 4,985 Miami-Dade County residents was made to eligible applicants.
  • FEMA caseworkers authorized payments of $15,743 for three funerals, which were insufficiently documented to establish the deaths as disaster-related.
  • FEMA awarded $192,592 for miscellaneous items to applicants in Miami-Dade County based only upon the verification that such items were purchased — not whether a disaster-related need existed.
  • The amount authorized for automobile replacement, particularly for older vehicles, was generally far in excess of the market replacement costs or an amount needed to acquire comparable transportation.
W. went on to win re-election, as well as the state of Florida (although many question the validity of the results in that state). Can Brown be credited with the 'W' (pun intended)? Probably not, but it's clear that he made sure that Hurricane Frances would not cause a loss for W. For that, Bush gives him "Brownie" points.

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