Hurricane Dean: Texas Gets Bush's "Florida Treatment"
As the category 4 Hurricane Dean barrels towards his home state of Texas, President Bush is trying to "get out front" of the storm's potentially devastating impact. Their state already declared a disaster area, the Lone Star State will not only benefit from the lessons of Katrina; it looks like Texans may get the "Florida treatment."
The feverish preparations in Texas show the Bush administration is at least capable of learning some lessons from its 2005 Katrina calamity. Under new FEMA guidelines, Governor Rick Perry requested and President Bush approved pre-landfall disaster status for the states, triggering the deployment of emergency relief staff, resources and supplies to the area. As White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe described,
"Within the last year or so there has been a process put in place where we reach out to the states ahead of time and we don't just wait for them to begin to think about requesting the declaration. The result of Katrina is the federal government's pro-active stance to go to the states and say 'You have this option. Come to us now and request it. Call us. Get the paperwork going.'"
Of course, President Bush didn't need the destruction of the Gulf Coast and the loss of New Orleans in 2005 to get it right for his home state. After all, the experience of Florida in 2004 showed the Bush White House can in fact do hurricane recovery - provided it's an election year in a battleground state whose governor happens to be the President's brother.
As I wrote in September 2005 ("FEMA: Florida Election Management Agency"), Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco learned that the hard way. While her state suffered through a disastrous, disorganized and delayed response to Katrina from FEMA and the Bush administration, Florida governor Jeb Bush had no such problems as his state weathered four hurricanes in 2004.
There is no mystery to this discrepancy, as GovExec.com wrote in "How FEMA Delivered Florida for Bush" on November 3rd, 2004, literally the day after the President won reelection:
Now that President Bush has won Florida in his 2004 re-election bid, he may want to draft a letter of appreciation to Michael Brown, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Seldom has any federal agency had the opportunity to so directly and uniquely alter the course of a presidential election, and seldom has any agency delivered for a president as FEMA did in Florida this fall.
FEMA's preparation, performance and questionable largesse during the four 2004 Florida hurricanes stands in stark contrast with its abysmal failure in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. While severe, the four Florida hurricanes (Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne) caused under 100 deaths and $22 billion in damage, a fraction of Katrina's destructive force. Yet FEMA's proactive role and President Bush's timely and personal involvement in Florida bear no relation to 2005:
- Hurricane Charley in August 2004 saw FEMA, National Guard troops, relief supplies and President Bush on stand by before the storm even made landfall. As the St. Petersburg Times reported on August 17th, 2004, "Governor Jeb Bush sought federal help Friday while Charley was still in the Gulf of Mexico. President Bush approved the aid about an hour after the hurricane made landfall." Cargo planes flew FEMA supplies supplies from a Georgia Air Force base to a staging area in Lakeland, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had stockpiled 11 truckloads of water and 14 truckloads of ice. Guy Daines, the former Pinellas County director of emergency services, was pleased and impressed with the rapid response of the National Guard and the delivery of pre-positioned supplies, stating "It amazed me how they got over 4,000 National Guard troops in there that quick. Rather than sit there and react, they are trying to get a jump-start on everything."
- FEMA again prepositioned personnel, supplies, and equipment for the Frances, which struck in the first week of September. A FEMA press release offered a laundry list descriptio of preparations for Frances. 30,000 tarps, 100 truckloads of water and 100 truckloads of ice were already in place. Emergency medical teams and four urban search and rescue teams were already in place. By September 6, 900,000 Meals Ready to Eat (MRE's) were stockpiled in Jacksonville. President Bush himself got into the act, distributing ice to Florida hurricane victims with brother Jeb.
- This performance was repeated for Ivan and Jeanne, which hit two and three weeks later, respectively. Again, FEMA was in place with food, ice, water, and financial aid in advance of the arrival of the storms. By September 29, FEMA was providing detailed daily updates on its relief eforts, including over $360 million in aid to individuals. This assistance was augmented by the IRS, which granted tax relief for Florida hurricane victims.
- Large and timely federal recovery funding was never an issue for the Florida Four. Congress passed $13 billion in recovery spending for the 2004 hurricanes, the bulk of which went to Florida. By August of 2005, $5.6 billion had been spent.
Whether that money had been spent wisely by FEMA director Michael Brown is another subject altogether. On May 18, 2005, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs held hearings about waste and corruption in the Florida programs. In a session titled, "FEMA's Response to the 2004 Florida Hurricanes: A Disaster for Taxpayers?," Senators Collins, Nelson and others grilled Michael Brown over his agency's largesse to residents of Florida. Florida Senator Nelson detailed numerous frauds perpetrated by Brown at FEMA. This featured over $31 million in payouts, including paying for home and car repairs, in Miami-Dade County, which had been virtually unaffected by the storms. More morose, FEMA managed to pay the costs of over 300 funerals statewide, even though medical examiners attributed only 123 to the hurricanes.
The rest, as they say, is history. Bush carried Florida over John Kerry by a surprisingly comfortable margin. As GovExec noted after election day, 2004:
"Bush later made a handful of other Florida visits to review storm-related damage, but the story on the ground was not Bush's hand-holding. Rather, it was FEMA's performance. It's impossible to know just how much of an effect FEMA had on the Florida vote...Even so, in a closely contested state where hundreds of thousands of voters suffered storm-related losses, it's equally hard to imagine that they didn't notice the agency's outreach."
No doubt, residents of George W. Bush's home state of Texas will notice the same thing.