I’ve just watched the entire appearance of Michael Brown before the House committee investigating Hurricane Katrina–OK, not the whole thing, but they’re taking a break now and it’s all I can stand. On the whole, Brown did an excellent job. I don’t suppose many people saw his appearance, but of those who did, most no doubt learned something about the division of responsibility in emergency management.
Of those who participated in the hearing, Brown was by far the most impressive. Democratic Congressman William Jefferson of Louisiana was his party’s designated hit-man, but it was painfully evident that his opening speech was a filibuster. He didn’t dare stop talking for fear that Brown would have an opportunity to answer his questions. But it wasn’t just the Democrats; “Republican” Congressman Christopher Shays, too, was an ill-informed disgrace.
It’s hard to say what a marginally-informed citizen would make of the Katrina hearing, but my own impression was that the only person in the room who had any idea what he was talking about was Michael Brown. Many years ago, I harbored a prejudice against public employees and politicians. After I spent several decades working in the private sector, in constant contact with the public sector, I realized that both politicians and civil servants are much more capable than I had assumed–fully equal to leaders in the private sector, and sometimes superior. So it doesn’t shock me that the head of FEMA is far more articulate in discussing emergency preparedness than the often dim-witted Congressmen who yammered at him.
No doubt FEMA’s performance was imperfect. What else is new? But Michael Brown didn’t flood New Orleans. Nor did he fail to order a mandatory evacuation. Nor, when the order was finally given by the appropriate authorities, was he the one who failed to carry it out competently. I thought it was a mistake when President Bush cashiered Brown, and his performance tonight validates that judgment. FEMA’s position is eminently defensible. But the Bush administration, historically, has failed to defend itself aggressively, and instead has passively yielded to the news cycle.
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