Michael Brown, who heads FEMA as undersecretary of homeland security for emergency preparedness and response, already has endured sharp criticism for comments he made last week that seemed to suggest he did not understand that thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina had taken refuge at the New Orleans convention center.
Before joining FEMA in 2001, Brown, a protege of longtime Bush aide Joseph Allbaugh, was commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association and had virtually no experience in disaster management.
An official biography of Brown’s top aide, acting deputy director Patrick Rhode, doesn’t list disaster relief experience.
The department’s No. 3 official, acting deputy chief of staff Brooks Altshuler, also does not have emergency management experience, according to FEMA spokeswoman Natalie Rule.
Rule said the absence of direct experience managing emergencies is irrelevant because top managers need “the ability to keep the organization running.”
But Eric Holdeman, director of the King County Office of Emergency Management in Seattle, said familiarity with the specifics of disaster management is essential.
“Experience is not just general managerial experience, it’s experience in the field,” he said.
Rhode and Altshuler worked in the White House’s Office of National Advance Operations, which arranges Bush’s travel and scripts his appearances.
I just had an “aha!” moment. Did you? I knew that the upper (mis)management levels of FEMA consisted of political appointees, but under Clinton they were all people who had actual disaster or emergency management experience at the state or regional level. Under Bush II they’re people whose background is mostly in public policy, PR, and presidential “spin.”
I know I keep hammering away at this; months or years from now, when some commission of inquiry finally pronounces the verdict of what went wrong with the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, all this stuff will be deeply buried in the footnotes.