Chat with US Rep. Bennie Thompson on FEMA and Katrina Accountability

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thompson2(APN) ATLANTA — “The only person who’s lost their job to this point is Michael Brown and this whole debacle includes more people than Michael Brown,” US Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MI) told Atlanta Progressive News in a phone interview.

“Michael Brown was not qualified,” to be the Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Rep. Thompson said.  “He [Brown] was a political crony put in the position because of his support of George Bush and his relationship with the former director of FEMA.”

Congressman Thompson sat down for a phone interview with Atlanta Progressive News to discuss the PREPARE Act, the legislation he is sponsoring to address some of the major problems with FEMA. Thompson also discussed his committee’s recent review of FEMA, and his thoughts on the federal response to Katrina.

The Plan to Restore Excellence and Professional Accountability in Responding to Emergencies (PREPARE) Act has three main recommendations. First, it requires that the Director of FEMA have “demonstrated ability or extensive background in emergency or disaster-related management.” It also creates a deputy director who must have a disaster management background and must be a career Federal employee.

Second, it requires that the head of FEMA report directly to the President during “all incidents of national significance.”

Third, it requires that “FEMA must operate in accord with the emergency management ‘cycle’ system – requiring the re-unification of preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation efforts,” according to a press statement released to Atlanta Progressive News.

Currently the original cosponsors are Representatives Thompson, Pascrell, Langevin, Etheridge, Meek, DeFazio, Al Green, Christensen, Markey, and Jackson-Lee.

Congressman Thompson is the Ranking Democrat on the US House Committee on Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA in partnership with the US House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Coming from the state of Mississippi, he has a personal as well as political interest in addressing what he calls the Katrina debacle. Thompson is also notably the only non-senior Democratic Congressman who is the ranking member on a US House Committee; all other committees are headed by senior Democrats. Thompson’s committee was only created in recent years to oversee the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

“You can talk about leadership in the Department of Homeland Security and you can talk about it in FEMA directly. Basically you had a person who had been running the Arabian Horse Association (AHA) running an organization that is to supposed to respond to, whether it’s a terrorist threat or a natural disaster, and in both cases he’s demonstrated he can’t handle it,” Thompson said.

Indeed, Mr. Brown not only worked on horse issues before coming to FEMA; he created scandals and ruckus with the AHA and was later fired, an article in The Arizona Republic illuminates on his equestrian past.

“The recent Katrina Commission cited, his lapses in the performance of his job should not have been. A lot of us continue to wonder why the President does not… provide his leadership on this issue. He [Bush] is still defending what happened, he’s still defending the people,” Thompson said.

“While Republicans are in charge of the White House, the Senate, and the House… they have placed their individuals in all of the positions of responsibility to emergency preparedness, disaster preparedness, and terrorism preparedness. So you have to put the blame squarely on the shoulder of the Republicans in the Congress and Georgia Bush who is President,” Thompson said.

“And I don’t accept this notion that Katrina was like nothing we’ve ever had before. What does that mean? Does that mean we can be unprepared, and that’s an excuse for what happened? If we can respond to the tsunami [recently in Asia], surely we could have responded better to the victims of Katrina,” Thompson said.

Atlanta Progressive News asked how can we prevent this in the future.

“Well, the first you can do,” Thompson advises, “is elect Democrats in November because they get it; Republicans don’t.”

“The other thing you can do, is through the committee and hearings process, as well as the legislative process on the floor, is see how serious Republicans are about trying to fix the problem. We’re going to offer amendments to put the money back in emergency preparedness in his budget,” Thompson said.

“We need to make people understand that a FEMA director should be above politics. So there should be qualifications,” Thompson said.

Rep. Thompson does not advocate–given the current political arrangement–making FEMA again into an independent agency. Atlanta Progressive News reported last week that US Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) has joined others in recommending exactly that.

To be sure, if FEMA was no longer under DHS, it would no longer be under the jurisdiction of Thompson’s Committee, and so he wants to preserve his Committee’s scrutiny power. But there’s more reasoning to it than that.

“The issue is, if this Administration was one that demonstrated responsibility and concern for getting it right, then moving it outside of DHS is the right thing to do. But they have consistently demonstrated that they don’t care,” Thompson said.

“What I’ve tried to offer as an alternative is [intended] to the extent possible, to fix what they’ve messed up,” Thompson said.

“At this point, I’m convinced that the Bush administration will not admit that they’ve made an error. That’s never going to happen. The second best thing to do is try to fix it where it is.”

And what about preparing for disasters, or heaven forbid, trying to prevent them?

Thompson provided enlightening information to Atlanta Progressive News of which we were previously unaware.

“We have to put all the Mission back under FEMA that they used to have that Chertoff has moved away in terms of preparing for disasters. We have an organization that one would think would have the responsbility to do many things, but the Secretary has separated those vital functions. He’s created a preparedness division that’s separate from FEMA.”

Thompson’s bill would again reunite the preparedness division with FEMA.

Republicans, in other words, subsumed FEMA under DHS, but separated the preparedness portion from FEMA, creating a recipe for disaster, so to speak.

“This Hurricane season is going to be as worse as the last. And it behooves us to be prepared as we possibly can. Unfortunately, our Secretary of Homeland Security doesn’t get it. He’s still in denial.”

As Atlanta Progressive News reported last week, US Rep. McKinney and a couple other Democrats joined numerous Republicans on a Select Committee study already issued. Most Democrats had boycotted that panel.

Thompson’s report and legislation are just another opportunity to provide necessary scrutiny, Atlanta Progressive News has learned.

“As far as the report went, there’s nothing in that report that you can dispute. The findings are the findings,” Thompson said. “Some of us feel the report didn’t go far enough,” he cautioned, however.

“They did not subpoena any correspondence from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security during Katrina. We don’t know if they were twiddling their thumbs or what because we don’t have the record.”

Existing indications show that the President and top officials were on vacation during Katrina, even as the catastrophe appeared inevitable.

“The other thing with that report is it made no recommendations as to how do you improve FEMA or the DHS so these errors that were made during Katrina are not done again in the next Hurricane season,” Thompson said.

Rep. McKinney’s supplemental report did include several recommendations; however, these apparently did not come up in the main report. Thompson said he would be looking into her recommendations.

About the author:

Matthew Cardinale, 24, is a Hurricane Katrina evacuee from New Orleans who has relocated to Atlanta with all of his New Orleans flavor. He is the Editor and Founder of Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com

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This article may be reprinted in full at no cost where Atlanta Progressive News is credited.

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