Advance Men in Charge

Editorial

New York Times

September 9, 2005

The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced this week that it didn't want the news media taking photographs of the dead in New Orleans. A FEMA spokeswoman talked unconvincingly about the dignity of the dead. But the bizarre demand, a creepy echo of the ban on news media coverage of the coffins returning from Iraq, is simply the latest spasm of a gutted federal agency.

It's not really all that surprising that the officials who run FEMA are stressing that all-important emergency response function: the public relations campaign. As it turns out, that's all they really have experience at doing.

Michael Brown was made the director after he was asked to resign from the International Arabian Horse Association, and the other top officials at FEMA don't exactly have impressive résumés in emergency management either. The Chicago Tribune reported on Wednesday that neither the acting deputy director, Patrick Rhode, nor the acting deputy chief of staff, Brooks Altshuler, came to FEMA with any previous experience in disaster management. Ditto for Scott Morris, the third in command until May.

Mr. Altshuler and Mr. Rhode had worked in the White House's Office of National Advance Operations. Those are the people who decide where the president will stand on stage and which loyal supporters will be permitted into the audience - and how many firefighters will be diverted from rescue duty to surround the president as he patrols the New Orleans airport trying to look busy. Mr. Morris was a press handler with the Bush presidential campaign. Previously, he worked for the company that produced Bush campaign commercials.

So when Mr. Brown finally got around to asking Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for extra people for Katrina, it wasn't much of a departure for Mr. Brown to say that one of the things he wanted them to do was to "convey a positive image of disaster operations to government officials, community organizations and the general public." We'd like them to stay focused on conveying food, water and medical help to victims.

Political patronage has always been a hallmark of Washington life. But President Bill Clinton appointed political pals at FEMA who actually knew something about disaster management. The former FEMA director James Lee Witt, whose tenure is widely considered a major success, was a friend of Mr. Clinton's when he took office in 1993, but he had run the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. His top staff came from regional FEMA offices.

Surely there are loyal Republicans among the 50 directors of state emergency services. But President Bush chose to make FEMA a dumping ground for unqualified cronies - a sure sign that he wanted to hasten the degradation of an agency that conservative Republicans have long considered an evil of big government. Katrina has proved that federal disaster help is vital, and that Mr. Brown and his team of advance men can't do the job. What America needs are federal disaster relief people who actually know something about disaster relief.