CBS has a long history of tackling controversial news stories. They seem to regard themselves as an investigative outlet, something that cable news sources (which seem to specialize in stenography, propaganda, and vacuous entertainment) don’t quite get. Evidently the recent news that the stimulus bill does not include money specifically earmarked for Katrina recovery got their attention, as did the (in my opinion) ridiculous and unacceptable explanation that this money was tied up in bureaucracy. Props to them for that. Tonight they ran a story about the particulars of that bureaucratic tie-up. It’s about as ugly as anyone could imagine, including me—and that should say something.
A major part of the problem, as might be predicted, lies in the FEMA office in New Orleans. It has apparently been going on ever since the hurricane, and (again, as might be expected), the George W. Bush administration never saw fit to do anything about it, nor did the Democratic Congress see fit to call for investigations into it. If CBS’s discoveries are to be believed, what is going on is a form of disaster profiteering—in this case, an upper-level manager with a six-figure salary who wants to keep that cushy job for as long as possible and who is taking actions to lock up the recovery process to accomplish that. Almost $4 billion of the New Orleans money that this man was in charge of is still tied up, and in the meantime, the infrastructure decays and turns into a skeleton. His employees allege that he is stonewalling on purpose because he wants to keep looting the federal government for his plush salary, and apparently he has assumed (correctly, so far) that he can get away with it because no one really cares about New Orleans except for New Orleanians and a few others.
This man, Doug Whitmer, was a Bush-era choice. They had a real knack for picking people who existed in their jobs to warm seats and cover for each other when something actually happened, but Whitmer is likely even worse than a mere self-centered lump. You usually don’t get dozens of staff complaints against you over the course of two months unless you are either a very draconian manager but nonetheless very effective at your job, or you actually are the creep that the complaints allege you to be. Considering the outrageous, reprehensible three-plus-year bog-down of the Katrina money, I’d say that the former is probably ruled out. Whitmer has been accused of threatening, bullying, intimidation, racism on the job, and sexual harassment by FEMA-New Orleans employees who work for him. I guess he has “better” ways to spend his time than actually, you know, doing his job.
Naturally, his Washington boss defends him, says that “[he] has lived in New Orleans” (as if that has anything to do with it—plenty of people have lived in New Orleans and not all of them are interested in the well-being of the area), and curtly informs the CBS reporter that if there are problems in the New Orleans office, actions will be taken. Yeah, that sure convinces me. FEMA officials are well-known for the sterling quality of their promises. If positive actions were on FEMA’s agenda, you’d think something might have been done already. The hurricane was three and a half years ago.
But it is not just high-level federal bureaucrats who are to blame for this. The very Congresspeople who, last week, proclaimed to the news media that the reason the Gulf Coast got nothing for recovery was that the existing funds were just “tied up in planning,” must have received some notice of the true situation. I used to work for a U.S. Senator, and the offices constantly get mail from constituents. This little fiasco is more evidence to support my earlier suspicion, which was that most of these Congresspeople really didn’t listen to their constituents or care that much about their problems. But when the media does its job, it sure can be a pain in the rear for them, can’t it?
Since this office is designated “FEMA,” it should be under federal jurisdiction, specifically that of the Department of Homeland Security. This monstrous Big Brother bureaucracy has been widely criticized since its creation, and rightly so. Former Secretary Chertoff should’ve been “asked to resign” (read: fired) in the wake of Katrina, because although former FEMA chief Michael Brown was certainly incompetent, part of the problem was that Chertoff had not authorized FEMA to do all that it needed to do. Now that a new administration is in place, I hope that they will overhaul the chain of command for this bloatfest of a division. I also hope that Secretary Napolitano launches a departmental investigation into these allegations coming out of New Orleans, because if she has the authority to do so and fails to do it, the blood of 2005 (and, unfortunately, some year in the future) is on her hands as well as those of her predecessor. Her boss, the President, seems interested in the Gulf Coast, in contrast to just about everyone else in Washington. Any reforms of the Katrina recovery process will almost certainly need to come directly from the White House.
Update 2:20 A.M.: The Scurrying for Cover Begins!
Looks like some folks got wind of what would be on the news today. This adds an extra layer of meaning to my comment earlier that when the media does its job, Congress tends to act—but that it often takes such things to get lawmakers off their duffs. Some members of Congress are going after FEMA-New Orleans for that office’s incompetence and possible corruption. There’s also talk about an internal investigation in FEMA of this particular office, which is (I suppose) a start, but not a good one—and one that I do not think should be conducted, because it will be a waste of taxpayer money. I still think this will require an independent investigation of FEMA, because agencies in general are notorious for being unable to investigate themselves honestly. Joe Lieberman, chair of the Homeland Security Committee, has said in the last session of Congress that he wouldn’t do such a thing. Again, most likely this will have to be spearheaded by the executive branch, either Obama or Napolitano. But it needs to be done and it needs to be done right. That means independently.
Now if only they would turn their eyes to the Mississippi coast’s “recovery” as well, and consider that maybe it wasn’t such a great idea to let insurance companies deny claims to homeowners who had paid in and lost everything they owned in the hurricane. These (ex-)residents were, if they didn’t have money saved elsewhere, then forced to sell their land to Big Industry in order to walk away with something, anything, with which they could start over.
Guess you have to start somewhere, though. We’ll see.