Bush’s FEMA Was No Gem Either

Open Letter to The Wall Street Journal

June 23, 2010

Dear Editor:

Paul Rubin argues that President Obama is getting a free pass in the media in light of the environmental disaster caused by the BP oil spill.  The press, on the other hand, harshly chastised President Bush, for what Rubin thinks was a mildly successful government response (“A Tale of Two Disasters”, June 22).  As a former resident of New Orleans, I can attest that Dr. Rubin, however, is incorrect to claim “the federal response [to Katrina] was well coordinated and helpful overall”.

In the immediacy of Hurricane Katrina, approval procedures from Washington prevented or delayed the help of states, non-profits, and the international community.  The national coordinating system stymied the assistance of volunteer medical staff from throughout the country.  The Senate Homeland Security Committee concluded, “The federal department that was supposed to lead, direct and coordinate the federal response to Katrina was time and again late, uncertain and ineffective.”

Michael Brown, director of FEMA, promised buses, trailers and essential commodities for victims barricaded in the convention center, but waited two days before initiating action to deliver on those promises. Brown’s consequent resignation is a testament to his personal failure and that of his bureau, not simply a manner of spin in the press.

Most importantly, 1,800 people lost their lives in the tremendous flooding that occurred because of breeches in the levee system constructed by the federal government’s Army Corps of Engineers and many more suffered because of a federal response system that actively prevented aid from reaching those in need.

Were there failures of state and local government? Yes. Does media bias exist? Yes. Nevertheless, remembering the failures of FEMA allows us to learn from them.  As such, even more of a parallel can be drawn between the failures of the current administration’s disaster management and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina than Dr. Rubin suggests.


Emily C. Skarbek, Ph.D.
Director, Center on Entrepreneurial Innovation
The Independent Institute
Oakland, Calif.

Emily C. Skarbek is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. More information
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