Happy Holidays, from FEMA

Wonderful news from FEMA to the tens of thousands of people displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and still living in subsidized motel rooms: The agency will stop paying for most of the 53,000 rooms (all except 12,000 in Louisiana and Mississippi) on December 1. Evacuees, get ready to pay your own motel bill or go find another place to stay.

FEMA delivered the news in a press release on Tuesday that opens with five paragraphs recounting everything the agency has done and all it intends to do for the 150,000 unfortunates still in motels. Not only has it paid out hundreds of millions already just to get roofs over the evacuees’ heads, it wants to do more. R. David Paulison, FEMA’s acting director, is quoted as saying that the agency wants to get people out of hotels and motels and “into longer-term homes before the holidays.”

But FEMA disclosed it has a deeper interest, too: It wants to help people get back in touch with core American values like fending for themselves. “Those affected by these storms should have the opportunity to become self-reliant again and reclaim some normalcy in their lives.”

Only after all that, does the release get to the news: “On December 1, 2005 — the previously announced conclusion for FEMA’s direct payment hotel/motel program — direct federal emergency assistance reimbursements for hotel and motel rooms occupied by evacuees will end. FEMA has an aggressive plan to help place these families in longer-term housing prior to December 1.”

Note that FEMA goes out of its way to say the cutoff shouldn’t be news, because it was “previously announced.” And yes, check the FEMA website and there it is: An October 24 releaseheadlined “FEMA Continues Short-Term Lodging Program for Evacuees.” There, in the third paragraph, is the statement that the motel program would run through December 1. Someone ought to tell these folks what it means to bury the lead.

So, now that it has managed to make its intentions clear, how will the policy work in the real world?

Here’s one sign: In its statement three weeks ago, FEMA said it was paying for about 65,000 motel and hotel rooms. The number is down to 53,000 today, presumably thanks to state and local and volunteer efforts to find longer-term housing for people. That works out to 4,000 rooms cleared a week. Now, the agency wants to clear out 41,000 rooms (the 53,000 total less the 12,000 exempt rooms in Louisiana and Mississippi) in two weeks. Impossible? Perhaps not, despite FEMA’s involvement. Is it likely?

Here’s another sign. FEMA acknowledged a couple days ago that it would be a challenge to even get the word out. The agency had people going around slipping notices under evacuees’ motel-room doors, and it has produced radio public-service announcements to let people know what’s about to happen. If people weren’t even aware of what’s happening in the motel program two days, what’s the chance that FEMA is going to get everyone into the “readily available” longer-term housing (Paulison’s phrase) in the next two weeks?

Here’s one last sign: Look at what’s happening in Texas, where 19,000 motel rooms are occupied by hurricane refugees in Houston alone. The mayor there, Bill White, said given the city’s experience with the issue, FEMA should be seeking its advice: “We have moved more evacuees out of hotels than any other city has ever had in hotels. So we encourage those new to it to ask us, not tell us, how to do it.” Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, said, “My great concern is that there is still no long-term housing plan for the hundreds of thousands of Katrina victims who lost everything.”

What’s going to happen? If FEMA follows through, the problem will be dumped on the states and cities across the country where evacuees wound up. Tens of thousands of people will wind up in shelters again or be put out on the street. More likely, FEMA will take such a horrendous PR pummeling over every aspect of its decision that it will be forced to back off until someone — likely someone outside FEMA — actually figures out a workable plan for getting people into real housing.

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‘Anything I Need to Tweak?’

My brother John points out the latest chapter in the saga of former FEMA chief Michael “Superdome” Brown. A Louisiana congressman has released some of Brown’s emails (obtained from the Department of Homeland Security) written during the Hurricane Katrina crisis. Brown’s Bartlett’s-worthy response to a dispatch from a deputy in New Orleans who reported the situation was “past critical”:

“Anything specific I need to do or tweak?”

That could be the motto for the entire Bush administration, from 9/11 to Iraq to this thing. I remember talking to Dad before all this Katrina stuff happened about the pure incompetence of these people. They are simply bad at what they do. They are bumblers. Their behavior isn’t grounded in actions-consequences reality (think back to Ron Susskind’s New York Times Magazine piece from last fall and the unnamed administration guy who dismissed “the reality-based community”). They mistake the competence to accomplish discrete tasks — “the CIA can generate intelligence reports” or “the Marines can kick Saddam’s ass” — for a magic wand that will allow them to accomplish whatever they’ve dreamed up. All they need to do is think up a project — “Let’s build a new house!” — invoke some high-sounding principles — “I want it to look like the Taj Mahal!” — then sketch the thing on a napkin and tell the guys with the shovels, cement mixers and hammers to make it happen. What a big surprise that they wind up with a swampy hole in the ground and a half-built foundation with rebar sticking out at crazy angles.

But these folks are optimists: Everyone’s invited to the house warming. And they’re hard working. Just like the emails say: “Even the president has his sleeves rolled up, to just below the elbow.”

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Post-Katrina Reading

Highly recommended: The New Yorker’s extensive collection of current and historical storm pieces from the September 12 issue, including a clutch of Talk of the Town mini-essays and two classic pieces: One by James B. Stewart on the flooding upriver in 1993, and John McPhee’s 1987 history of the Army Corps of Engineers projects designed to keep New Orleans and other parts of the lower delta dry. on the history of the Army Corps and its effects:

“The river goes through New Orleans like an elevated highway. Jackson Square, in the French Quarter, is on high ground with respect to the rest of New Orleans, but even from the benches of Jackson Square one looks up across the levee at the hulls of passing ships. Their keels are higher than the AstroTurf in the Superdome, and if somehow the ships could turn and move at river level into the city and into the stadium they would hover above the playing field like blimps.

“In the early nineteen-eighties, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a new large district headquarters in New Orleans. It is a tetragon, several stories high, and it is right beside the river. Its foundation was dug in the mainline levee. That, to a fare-thee-well, is putting your money where your mouth is.”

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Hurricane Hastert

I’m proud to be a native of the state that produced Speaker of the House Dennis “Hurricane” Hastert. At last, a common-sense politician brave enough to speak his mind. As all around him wring their hands over the catastrophe in New Orleans, Hastert alone is clearsighted enough to see beyond the suffering and try to chart a sensible course for tomorrow. “It doesn’t make sense” to spend federal money to help rebuild the city, he said. And: “It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.” Sometimes that’s the toughest thing: having the courage to move on.

Hastert noted that federal money is spent on rebuilding other disaster-prone locales sometimes: “But you know we build Los Angeles and San Francisco on top of earthquake fissures and they rebuild, too. Stubbornness.” (I like the fissures part; he must have seen that in “Superman”).

There’s a cost, of course, to such plain-spokenness. People who’ve lost their city react emotionally to your ideas. The principled thing to do amid the wounded yowls is plow straight ahead and enlighten the folks about the careful reasoning behind your blunt honesty. You might say something like this — or at least Hurricane Hastert did:

“ I am not advocating that the city be abandoned or relocated. My comments about rebuilding the city were intended to reflect my sincere concern with how the city is rebuilt to ensure the future protection of its citizens and not to suggest that this great and historic city should not be rebuilt.”

Truly: A profile in courage.

Hurricane Relief: Mission Accomplished

On Monday, as Hurricane Katrina was beginning the process of turning New Orleans and the Gulf Coast into something like hell, the president was talking up all the great things he’s done for Medicare recipients at a senior center in Southern California. He wanted to touch on some current events, though, before he started into telling everyone how much better he’d made their lives:

“… We’re praying for the folks that have been affected by this Hurricane

Katrina. We’re in constant contact with the local officials down there.

The storm is moving through, and we’re now able to assess damage, or

beginning to assess damage. And I want the people to know in the

affected areas that the federal government and the state government and

the local governments will work side-by-side to do all we can to help

get your lives back in order.

“This was a terrible storm. It’s a storm that hit with a lot of ferocity. It’s a

storm now that is moving through, and now it’s the time for governments

to help people get their feet on the ground.

For those of you who prayed for the folks in that area, I want to thank you

for your prayers. For those of you who are concerned about whether or

not we’re prepared to help, don’t be. We are. We’re in place. We’ve got

equipment in place, supplies in place. And once the — once we’re able

to assess the damage, we’ll be able to move in and help those good

folks in the affected areas.”

“For those of you who are concerned about whether or not we’re prepared to help, don’t be.” He didn’t quite say “mission accomplished.” But you have to view the clip — Bush with his cocksure “we done showed Saddam” smirk — to see that he really was saying “mission accomplished.”