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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Hurricane Katrina, FEMA, and Clinton

I've tried to avoid posting about Katrina, but something just struck me as I watch constant coverage of it on Bloomberg TV. Much has been made of FEMA director Michael Brown's lack of disaster response qualifications. That is by now well-documented and the ineptitude it resulted in is constantly being shown on TV sets worldwide. Why is it that the Clinton administration had an ace FEMA man, James Lee Witt, while the Bush 43 administration has someone so widely castigated?

The answer is on page 428 of "My Life", Bill Clinton's autobiography. Speaking about his 1992 campaign in the wake of Hurricane Andrew:
Traditionally, the job of FEMA director was given to a political supporter of the President who wanted some plum position but who had no experience with emergencies. I made a mental note to avoid that mistake if I won. Voters don't choose a President based on how he'll handle disasters, but if they're faced with one, it quickly becomes the most important issue in their lives.
The rest is history. Clinton "reformed FEMA so that it was no longer the least popular government agency but the most admired one, thanks to James Lee Witt" (p. 614). "My Life" has been criticized as overlong and under-organized. Maybe so, but every now and again you come across wisdom like this that makes you want to slap your 45 RPM copy of "Glory Days" on the turntable. Make no mistake; despite his failings, Clinton saved a lot of lives by hiring Witt instead of one of his golfing buddies or political donors. Let's hope that Witt's appointment by Governor Blanco helps. It's time to set political favoritism aside and let the best qualified persons do what can be done to save lives.


Posted by Emmanuel |


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2 Comments:

At 7:55 PM, Blogger Roland Patrick said...

Unfortunately, high school dropout Witt was in fact a political crony of Bill Clinton, who had no disaster relief experience at all when Clinton gave him that top job in Arkansas. Pot, Kettle, Black.

And, at the time of Katrina, Brown had four years experience with FEMA. Two as head man, including the 2004 Hurricane season when four hurricanes (two category 4s) hit Florida. Brown is not a political crony of Bush.

 
At 1:53 PM, Blogger Emmanuel said...

Aye, you are right about Witt being a political crony of Clinton. He even acknowledges Witt as one of his "longtime friends". Much of the current brouhaha lies in the qualifications and track record of Brown in comparison with those of Witt, and we kind of differ here. It'll be interesting how things play out. As far as I can recall, few people spoke ill of Witt--not even Bush 43, who spoke of him in glowing terms.

Being a political supporter of someone doesn't automatically mean that appointing this ally is a certain mistake. Clinton had some pretty good ones like Robert Reich and Witt, and some questionable ones--Jocelyn Elders comes to mind.

On the balance, though, I'd wager that Witt will be regarded more highly by persons on either side of the political divide. The assessment of the current FEMA head is still ongoing, though I must say that he's put himself in a bit of a bind. Surely, his history prior to coming to FEMA does not put him in a favorable light. Lee's record in Arkansas speaks for itself. Brown might have a higher level of educational attainment than Witt, but I'd wager that many would rather have Witt than Brown in a situation where a penchant for action is more valued than lawyerly knowledge.

 

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