FEMA, Now and Then

There was a very interesting editorial in the Minneapols Star and Tribune a couple of days ago comparing FEMA during President Clinton’s time in the White House during the Grand Forks flood of 1997 and what is happening now with President Bush and the New Orleans disaster.

Due to a complex mistake in the National Weather Service’s hydrological model, amplified by freakish behavior of the river itself, the city of Grand Forks was nearly destroyed. It was, at the time, classified as the eighth-worst natural disaster in U.S. history. By failing to correctly predict the flood crest, the federal government, many outraged and heartbroken Grand Forks citizens said then, had failed them — and had ruined their lives.

But before this resentment could fester, Bill Clinton, FEMA Director James Lee Witt, and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala rolled into town. Witt’s team had, in fact, had been in Grand Forks in the weeks leading up to the flood, urging homeowners to enroll in the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program. FEMA officials were familiar figures in town.

Before arriving in Grand Forks, Clinton had authorized FEMA to provide 100 percent of the direct federal assistance for all of the emergency work undertaken by federal agencies in the disaster zones (the normal reimbursement rate is 75 percent).

The National Guard had been mobilized months earlier — its ranks full and available to the people it served — and was responsible for a huge percentage of preparedness activities before the flood. It was responsible for executing the remarkable evacuation of Grand Forks (until New Orleans, the largest evacuation of an American city since Atlanta in the Civil War) and provided immediate search and rescue support as the floodwaters deluged the city.


“You bring us hope,” Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens tearfully told President Clinton at a press conference soon after the dikes were overtopped.

“It may be hard to believe,” Clinton replied then, “But you can rebuild stronger and better than ever.”

Compare these words to Bush’s comments upon landing in New Orleans, where a disaster of unimaginable proportions had just occurred, where bodies lay rotting outside the convention center because aid had not reached them in time: He joked about his visits to New Orleans during his alcoholic days when he had “sometimes too much” fun in the French Quarter. Dennis Hastert chose to comment publicly on his belief that much of New Orleans would be “bulldozed.” Rep. Richard Baker, of Baton Rouge, was reported by the Wall Street Journal to have said to lobbyists, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

The contrast between the indifferent response from the Bush administration in the hours and days after Katrina and the rapid and seemingly heartfelt response of the Clinton administration in Grand Forks could not be clearer.

Read the rest of the editorial here.

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