OPINION | Michael Brown: Mr. President, don’t let Hurricane Harvey be your Katrina
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Dear Mr. President:

Theodore Roosevelt once stated, “I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!” You know quite well the power of that bully pulpit. May I humbly suggest that Hurricane Harvey is one of those times you must use your bully pulpit to ensure the federal government does its job and does it well.

President George W. Bush, most of the administration and Congress were, like today, on their August break when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. I was there and know how disconcerting it was — and detrimental to the hurricane victims — that it was vacation time for political leadership. Bush’s image, and the legitimacy of the entire federal government, was challenged because the bully pulpit was virtually silent.

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You have a good man in Brock Long, your FEMA administrator. I’ve known Long since he worked at the National Hurricane Center on behalf of FEMA when I was the under secretary of Homeland Security and director of FEMA. Long understands federalism, the distinct and proper roles of federal, state and local governments. Most importantly, Long knows that when a natural or manmade disaster exceeds the capacity of state and local governments to respond, America has decided we will turn to the federal government to assist those state and local governments impacted by that disaster.

 

Mr. President, please take these comments with an open mind. My comments are not meant to be critical. I simply want to alert you to the human and political pitfalls when an administration faces a potentially major natural or manmade disaster and doesn’t realize the bully pulpit makes the difference between a successful response and, frankly, a politically devastating response.

As Long (and many on your National Security Council) understands, FEMA is the honest broker that can rally the vast resources of the federal government. If Hurricane Harvey is as bad as I expect it to be in terms of catastrophic (a term I use sparingly) flooding, those federal resources are going to be needed by the citizens of the great state of Texas. In 2001 Tropical Storm Allison also hit Texas and became one of the most expensive disasters in U.S. history. Hurricane Harvey, with forecasts of catastrophic flooding, may turn out to be equally expensive and devastating.

Mr. President, Long needs you to step up to the bully pulpit.

Why?

FEMA will need assistance from the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Interior, Environmental Protection Agency and others. Many of those departments and agencies do not have the political appointees to marshal the resources FEMA will need. Now is not the time to debate why many of those offices are vacant. Now is the time to realize they are vacant and step to the plate as Commander-in-Chief and rally your troops.

Mr. President, let’s get into the weeds for a minute.

FEMA doesn’t own planes, trains and automobiles. But it does have an enormous checkbook. And that checkbook is the mechanism by which FEMA is able to identify and deploy the resources of other federal departments and agencies that will be sorely needed in responding to and recovering from Hurricane Harvey.

I believe you already intuitively know that turf wars exist between departments and agencies. They fight for limited taxpayer monies. They fight for their own programs and policies. They fight for their own toys.

But those monies, programs and toys may be needed in responding to Hurricane Harvey. They may also be needed in recovering from Hurricane Harvey. It’s time for the kids to learn to share.

Only you, Mr. President, can take the bully pulpit and command your cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries and undersecretaries to listen to administrator Long and give him what he wants when he wants it, without question and without hesitation.

In a natural or manmade disaster, there is no time to debate who is going to pay for what, or whether FEMA really needs this or that. You nominated Long because he knows what he’s doing. Your job, Mr. President, is to support him and tell your cabinet that it is all-hands-on-deck for FEMA.

Only you can do that.

In a natural or manmade disaster, every minute of delay within the bureaucracy turns into hours and days of delay on the ground. Nothing is more frustrating — and deadly — than when a FEMA administrator has to fight through a bureaucratic jungle to get the resources needed from other departments and agencies. And if they’re on vacation, or there is no one in that policy or procurement office, you have a situation that can be deadly — literally and politically.

Mr. President, having “been there and done that” when it comes to natural and manmade disasters, I want the people of Texas and the United States at large to know that the White House understands that now is the time to marshal the assets of the federal government and have them ready and available when FEMA administrator Long asks for them.

Mr. President, you love the bully pulpit. Use it.

Michael D. Brown served as general counsel, deputy director, director of FEMA and as under secretary of Homeland Security for President George W. Bush from 2001-2005. He is the author of “Deadly Indifference – The Perfect [Political] Storm.”


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