Five years after the September 11th terrorist attacks and it seems all too easy to despair. We are at war, which has been grossly misguided and ill-justified at best, and isolated ourselves as a nation on the world stage. And not only is our foreign policy a nightmare, as the events of Hurricane Katrina and Rita displayed, so is our domestic policy. Five years ago, I was in my home town of New York — business as usual — when 2 planes hit the towers. During the first few hours and even the first few days, there seemed a glimmer of hope, of opportunity that perhaps we could turn this tragedy into something better, something stronger, and something positive. The world supported us, there was an unprecedented unity. The series of events that would take place took us in the opposite direction and seemingly far away from any unity. In fact, we are more alone and less secure now.
Looking back now, five years later, and I am deeply saddened at the direction our country has gone in, with a few exceptions, one being a conference I helped to co-organize with the Brookings Institution and Americans for Informed Democracy and held at George Washington University. The conference was aptly titled: 9-11 Plus Five: Hope Not Hate Summit. The Hope Not Hate Summit was a three-day conference in Washington, D.C. that brought together young leaders from around the world to commemorate the fifth anniversary of September 11th and to discuss ways to improve U.S.-Islamic world relations over the next five years. Seeing all those young people so engaged, look for accountability and responsibility, challenging notions and paradigms, and searching for ways to improve our relation with Muslims in America and around the world was incredibly heartening. With young people like those who attended, we may yet be able to change the course we have been taking and pull this country (and those we have damaged) out of a desperate situation: To quote Gandalf, “There is always hope.” And that hope is in our young. We must be careful to nurture and encourage them. Oh, yes, and to be role models (remember “role models,” it seems like a long time since we had real ones). Sorry to cut this short, and sorry for, well, not writing anything too prolific, but it’s been a long day in disaster human services and emergency management. Nice to be back writing….more tomorrow.
By Cooked Goose (Jenny Mincin)
A friend and colleague in emergency management, Zach Goldfarb, just wrote an article in the Washington Post.com today reporting on how one 20-year old college intern challenged information on the US Department of Homeland Security’s preparedness website, Ready.gov. It’s a little funny and a little scary at the same time.
Apparently, there’s quite a bit of misinformation on the Ready.gov website (can’t say I spend too much time there myself, I use other sources). So much so, that the Federation of American Scientists, at the behest of summer intern Emily Hesaltine (a sophmore college student), created their own, “correct” version of the preparedness website, Reallyready.org.
I’ll have to do a little comparison myself and report back my findings. For what it’s worth, it is raising some eyebrows in the emergency management community and has the potential to lessen civilian confidence in the federal government’s ability to provide accurate preparedness information (that is if it’s actually possible to lessen public confidence in the government right now). As usual, the administration’s response was defensive, notifying the public they could get confused with the new site that has the supposed corrections. I’ll check it out and give my take.
I have much to update you on including the Drum Major Institute’s Gala (6/22), Salman Ahmed’s performance (6/26) and a conference I was at last week in DC on emergency management and special needs issues (timely considering we are in hurricane season and I’m not sure what our government has done to prepare for it).
Drum Major Institute Award Gala
I attended the Drum Major Institute’s (DMI) award dinner on June 22 and got to hear Wynton Marsalis give one of the best speeches I have heard in quite some time. I have often lamented to friends and family that we have no leaders left to inspire and move us, but I was proven wrong at the award dinner. Wynton spoke of coming together rather than dividing, of the importance of solving the problem of poverty and race this country faces, and changing the discourse. What I loved and respected the most about his speech was that he did not read from anything, it came from his brilliant mind and shinning heart, and he was unabashedly honest – so powerful, instilling hope.
After the gala, a group of bloggers came together to celebrate Markos’ award and to talk about the underground Internet revolution. It’s been some time since I really felt like I was in my tribe, but indeed I found my fellow bees. It was refreshing and exciting to be sitting in a room of fellow bloggers, innovators, writers, and those truly dedicated to challenging the current state of affairs – let’s not be so isolated and afraid to speak out and know that the more we do the more chance we have of changing the direction we are headed in. I have to admit that it sort of felt like the underground of some sci-fi movie; god forbid we openly admit we are progressives, speaking up about poverty, race, and the miserable Iraq war, lest we be seen as “Un-American” (or commie-bastards as the term once was). We sat, ate, discussed in a basement of the now chic Lotus on 14th street (an area that was once full of prostitutes and drug addicts, now full of Steve McQueen and Stella McCarthy designer boutiques – hey, when did that happen?).
I must give props to my professor, Micah Sifry, who introduced (or more accurately forced me) into blogging for my Writing Politics class and pushed me into “finding my voice,” something I thought I lost for a while. It was great seeing him at the gala and the bloggers committee meeting. So glad he forced me and indeed I have found my voice. Thanks Micah!
When you’ve been beat-down and marginalized, it’s nice to meet people who value what you have to say. Let’s keep the dialogue going for Christ’s sake! There’s too much at stake.
Salman Ahmed at Joe’s Pub
If Rumi were alive and a musician, he might sound like Salman Ahmed (from Junoon) did on June 24th at Joe’s Pub. Seeing Salman perform was everything I anticipated it would be and more. You experience Salman, you don’t just listen to him; his music moves your soul. Conscientious without being preachy, Salman balances his message of peace and unity with fierce and masterful guitar rifts and vocals that sounded like a hundred Mosques at call to prayer. A diverse and friendly crowd, we had a blast. I even pretended to be able to sing in Urdu (thank god the music was loud enough that no one heard!).
Salman ended his set with a version of John Lennon’s Imagine, who Salman proclaimed was a modern day Sufi. A fitting ending given the times we live in. Let’s remember to be moved by the music, the message, and take action to do the right thing. Thanks Salman.
Well, there has been a lot going in DC including the Supreme Court’s scolding of the administration on Guantanamo, but here’s a quick report on my corner of the world. I attended an invitation-only conference, Working Conference on Emergency Management and Individuals with Disabilities and the Elderly, which was sponsored by US Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and run by EAD & Associates. The purpose was:
“[T]o bring together Governor-appointed State teams to connect State emergency management officials with key disability and aging experts to work toward integration of efforts within their jurisdiction’s emergency management framework; to facilitate cooperative planning with senior officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency regions; and to identify and institute measurable outcomes and systems for tracking results.”
It was actually an intense and highly productive conference because it was outcomes-driven rather than the usual gathering of talking heads who get to massage each other’s egos and spend their per diem. We had a lot of work to accomplish in a short period of time and especially in light of last year’s disaster. Most important to note is that this conference specifically looked at the most vulnerable populations in the US: people with disabilities, the elderly, and otherwise disenfranchised (immigrant, non-English speaking, low income). Although advocates have been screaming for years for these issues to be dealt with, we finally got our forum. Unfortunately it comes off the heels of last year’s debauchery, Hurricane Katrina. As experts, we have the answers and know how to better manage human services issues and needs during and after a disaster and to take care of our vulnerable populations. This conference was completely forward-looking and provided the opportunity for us to push the issues and create solutions. Each state delegate developed key issues and recommendations to bring back to their respective agencies and governors, and each region collectively established consensus, or commonalities, of issues they continue to deal with and need support from the federal government on. An “after action report” (in emergency management lingo) will be written and hopefully fed up the federal food chain. The question then becomes who will listen?
Once the conference website has gone public and the report finalized, I will post both. The findings and recommendations should be interesting.
Hey folks, Happy 4th of July. On a somber note on America’s day, check out Steve Clemon’s blog today on the GI rape and murder case by clicking here. Below is a blog my mother wrote on the same issue.
(Posted on May 10, 2006) Representative Tom Davis (R-VA) was on C-Span this morning discussing ways in which FEMA should be dealt with moving forward. Rep. Davis chairs the Government Reform Committee and sits on the Homeland Security Committee. His ideas are sound, intelligent and on-target. Finally, a politician who seems to understand how FEMA should function and ways in which the current problems can be addressed effectively.
Davis’ primary recommendation is to move FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and into the Executive Office of the White House so that FEMA leadership will have direct access to the president and resume its place as a cabinet-level position and agency. I really think this makes sense because during a disaster, leadership must have direct access to the president and have the capability to commandeer whatever assets and resources are needed to address both the response and recovery needs. Under DHS, FEMA does not have that capability and precious hours, if not days, are wasted trying to navigate the bureaucratic system; this much to the detriment of the response efforts and people’s lives.
I still agree with Homeland Security Watch and others in my field, however. Moving FEMA out of DHS as a sole answer will not fix some of the internal, systemic problems. Proper and appropriate leadership, robust and continued financial and political support, reinvigorated work-force, and strengthened planning, response and recovery systems with more integration is also needed.
I appreciate Davis’ frank assessment of FEMA and his courage to cut through some of the DC politics to put forth reasonable solutions. He did mention that unfortunately, Congressional committees have their own politics and territory issues that may make implementing comprehensive, holistic, and reasonable solutions for FEMA all the more difficult. This is where politics and ego must be put aside so that an agency whose primary focus is to save and rebuild lives during a critical period is placed at the forefront.
Davis is leading the charge regarding legislation that would make FEMA an independent agency again. The proposed legislation, RESPOND Act: Restoring Emergency Services To Protect Our Nation From Disasters Act, will not only make FEMA independent, it will strengthen its planning and response capabilities. Davis correctly pointed out that once FEMA was placed under DHS, it not only lost authority and critical access to the Commander-in-Chief, it lost significant funding and key personnel. This must be restored along with better leadership, plans, technology and response systems.
You can view Rep. Davis’ interview on C-Span’s Washington Journal here. If you have a few moments, I encourage you to listen to the interview. It is one of the more sound views on the FEMA situation.
(Posted May 9, 2006) The General Accountability Office (GAO) released a report today on its analysis of and recommendations for strengthening FEMA after last years tragedy. The report, FEMA: Factors for Future Success and Issues to Consider for Organizational Placement, outlines suggested changes for FEMA aside from simply abolishing it or separating it out from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The GAO states that the following should be looked at rather than just organizational changes:
- Clarity of FEMA's mission and its related responsibilities and authorities
- The experience of and training related to, FEMA leadership
- The adequacy of its human, financial, and technological resources
- The effectiveness of its planning, exercises and related partnerships
Essentially, the GAO is suggesting that we look at the substantive issues presented as a result of FEMA's performance during Hurricane Katrina, and not the reactive, political, or superficial "fixes" presented by the administration or elected officials. The report states that organizational changes alone will not fix FEMA, but rather, clarifying its mission, strengthening its leadership, increasing its preparedness and response capabilities, and clear resources identified will better move the agency forward. What I find particularly interesting about the GAO report is its emphasis on well trained, cohesive, strong, and effective leadership. In addition, it is the first report I have seen (from government) that actually addresses where the breakdowns happened during FEMA's response and offers reasonable and implementable changes. And a bonus is that the report is 22 pages!
Homeland Security Watch also reported on the GAO findings and felt similar to how I feel about it:
I made a similar point in a post last week, and agree entirely that the issue of organizational structure is secondary. Hopefully the current debate in Congress will not get bogged down on organizational issues, but will instead focus on the less-visible but more important determinants of FEMA’s success.
Indeed, hopefully Congress will listen to the common sense report issued today and not let politics or reactionary ideas rule the day.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been off to such a great start, in part because of its leadership. Let's consider its (partial) track record (I invite readers to add to my list):
- Largest and most lethargic bureaucratic agency ever created
- Agencies that should not have been folded into DHS were
- Individuals were named into prominent leadership positions that lacked the background and skills
- Katrina and Rita (need I even say more)
- Changing FEMA much to the detriment of the agency – and now they want to dismantle it!
- Lots of resignation and the inability to hire good solid professionals
- And now the CIA director is stepping down
This is hard for me because (at least with FEMA) emergency management professionals know what they are doing and how to do their jobs. But where there is no meaningful leadership and political buy-in, it makes it impossible for staff to perform.
Clark Kent Ervin, a former DHS Inspector General (and incidentally a conservative) has just came out with a new book outlining the departments quagmire – and it’s coming from the top. Ervin’s book, Open Target, discusses in-depth, how he attempted to tell former Secretary Tom Ridge that there were serious problems within DHS and lack of leadership in pushing implementation of critical programs and fixing problems. Of course, he was dismissed.
And that includes FEMA. At the start of the administration, and before 9/11, the President was going to start to implement some changes in FEMA, but then 9/11 happened and things changed suddenly. DHS was formed as a political reaction not entirely thought out. FEMA suffered immensely, but so did the other agencies. Amidst the changes and transitions, the wrong people were placed in leadership positions. Not because there was something necessarily “wrong” with the political appointees (I met Brown once, he’s a nice guy), but because they didn’t have the necessary background to run these CRITICAL agencies. And they are critical agencies.
I know I blew some steam in my previous posting about dismantling FEMA, but it’s because we are still witnessing our politicians reacting and shooting from the hip instead of fixing the problem: create a culture of information sharing, have the necessary and most-technologically advance technology available, give political and financial priority to the agencies, place proper and knowledgeable leadership in positions of authority and senior management, work on mending the sorely bruised work-place environment and culture.
The Pogoblog (Project On Government Oversight) conducted an interview with Ervin, who is now working at the Aspen Institute. Also, John Stewart recently had him on his show. Check out the streaming media. (PS – Stewart also had a great interview with Madame Secretary Madeleine Albright!).
After seven months of inquiry and testimony (on our watch and dime), the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs recommend that FEMA be dissolved. This seems even too ridiculous to respond to. Have they all gone off the deep end? Seven months to decide that an agency that has been around since the 1970s (that had a pretty good track record until recent years under this administration) should simply be demolished and replaced by a new one is insane. According to the recommendation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would become the National Preparedness and Response Authority. Huh?
I have spent many years in emergency management and have colleagues who have spent many more in the industry. We are all standing around scratching our heads on this one.
I hate to get too academic, but I’d like to share a few thoughts and some background.
Prior to FEMA, Civil Defense had the responsibility of coordinating disasters, but disaster recovery and emergency management was still fragmented. FEMA was formed under President Jimmy Carter in 1979 with the purpose of better coordinating disaster response and planning. In 1993, President Clinton appointed James Lee Witt as Director of FEMA. Witt was the first director to have experience in emergency management; he served as the head of the Arkansas state emergency management office. Witt was known as an innovative leader and essentially transformed FEMA and emergency management during his nearly eight year tenure successfully shifting a cold war civil defense mentality to disaster planning, response and recovery.
In 2002, under the Bush administration, Joe Allbaugh was appointed director of FEMA. Allbaugh was not regarded highly within the emergency management field primarily because he had no prior background in emergency management. The next phase of change within FEMA and emergency management in general occurred as a result of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Michael Brown then succeeded Allbaugh.
One of the most significant changes that occurred after 9/11 was the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (FEMA), which has 22 federal agencies under it including FEMA. Focus from natural and technological disasters shifted to terrorism. So far, FEMA has not fared well under the new DHS structure, as it is now a part of one of the largest bureaucratic systems in government. This has made it less efficient and FEMA higher-ups have had significantly less access to the President. These grave changes were laid bare in last year’s Gulf region disaster.
Changes that occur on the federal level often effect local emergency management as well. Although billions of dollars have been spent on DHS, most of the money has gone towards security, and it is unclear how well the money is being spent. With all US states having state emergency management offices and a majority of cities, counties and municipalities having local emergency management offices in place, dissolving FEMA means dissolving emergency management down the line.
Most certainly, changes must be made to FEMA in light of what happened. But, as Rep. Nancy Pelosi stated, we are one month away from hurricane season. Is this the best time for the dissolution of FEMA?
To quote DHS Press Secretary, Russ Knocke, “It is time to stop rearranging organization charts and start focusing on how governments at all levels are preparing for the fast-approaching storm season.”
Senator Joe Lieberman, who is a member on the Senate Committee for Homeland Security, felt that some changes should be made, but it falls on the administration. Lieberman stated, “In national catastrophes, the nation looks to the president. … In Katrina, he failed," So then why did he go along with this absurd recommendation instead of holding the administration accountable?
I have no other analysis than to say this is simply absurd.
What really needs to be dismantled are Congress, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, and the Administration. Yes, the midterm elections are around the corner. Let’s hope the public chooses wisely.
If this is where my tax dollars went, I want my money back. This is the epitome of poor, poor government.
- Five Years Later….And There’s Hope
- Ready.gov Not Quite Ready
- DMI, Salman Ahmed (if Rumi were a musician), and What’s Happening in DC
- An Observation of Responsibility and Accountability in the Military
- NARAL Meeting July 12
- Junoon Front Man Salman Ahmed to Play at Joe’s Pub
- Drum Major Institute to Honor Kos, Marsalis, Burger, Heuvel
- Slowly Surfacing
- I May Disappear For A Few Days
- Saving FEMA
- Could There Be Common Sense in Our Government?
- Wake Up Part II
- Micah Sifry
- The Washington Note
- Bush v. Choice
- Taqrir – US -Muslim Weekly News
- EAD & Associates
- The Sunlight Foundation
- National Organization on Disability
- Cyber Chocolate
- David Kos
- Ridor Live
- MS Friends
- Feminist Bloghers Network
- Culture Kitchen
- Homeland Security Watch
- Drum Major Institute Blog
- Capitol Hill Blog
- Non-profit/DC Watch
- The Agonist
- Huffington Post