Frontline (1983– )
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The Storm 

How key political figures responded to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans.


Martin Smith


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Episode credited cast:
Will Lyman ... Narrator (voice)
Ray Nagin Ray Nagin
Tom Ridge ... (as Gov. Tom Ridge)


How key political figures responded to the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans.

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Release Date:

22 November 2005 (USA) See more »

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Frontline Exposes the Indifference of Bush, the Failure of FEMA, and the Big Loser was New Orleans
29 March 2009 | by classicalsteveSee all my reviews

I am surprised that I am the first person in 2 1/2 years to comment on this very important documentary about the failure of the US Federal Government in its response to the crisis called Hurricane Katrina. Most Americans would rather watch American Idol or Big Bang Theory than see newsworthy material that would help them better understand the role of their government in terms of matters of crises. And since the public would rather consume escapist television of no consequence, bad leaders who have a modicum of charisma whose political philosophies, agenda, and aspirations may not be completely understood will continue to occupy positions of power. And mainly because their constituencies are largely uninformed. This excellent documentary by Frontline exposes the many complex reasons, most of them political, as to why FEMA and federal troops were almost a week late in arriving in New Orleans after the perfect storm.

Frontline reveals several key factors as to why the disaster area created by Katrina escalated from an emergency to a catastrophe to a crisis during the aftermath of the hurricane. At the forefront is FEMA, The Federal Emergency Management Agency. Under both President Bush's, FEMA became an agency in which top positions could be filled as political favors, almost like a throw-away organization. Joe Allbaugh was Bush's nominee to head FEMA beginning in 2001. Not because of Allbaugh's extensive experience with handling domestic disasters, of which he had no experience at all. It was a political favor as Allbaugh was one of the chief campaign managers in Bush's successful presidential election bid in 2000. Allbaugh's successor was Michael D. Brown, who also had a sum total of 0 experience in navigating disasters.

By contrast, President Clinton did away with the political appointees of FEMA in 1993 and had nominated James Lee Witt, a man who had extensive experience in dealing with natural disasters and state emergency management. Witt created project IMPACT in which FEMA worked with local states and urban areas to enhance disaster preparedness. Unfortunately, New Orleans did not participate in the program while Witt was at FEMA's helm. And the program was cut under the Bush administration just when they were working on New Orleans, presumably using money that could have helped Louisana better prepare for the hurricane. Bush's political philosophy was to cut such programs viewed as "costly" and "unnecessary". Very positive programs such as the war in Iraq were of course exempt from such spending cuts.

Certainly it is debatable whether or not Brown acted appropriately during the crisis. He does not come off very well in the documentary and tries to defend what appears to be a disaster of leadership. But maybe it's not entirely Brown's fault. He had never had experience in emergency management before joining FEMA at the behest of Allbaugh as the documentary points out. It sounds like Allbaugh's and Brown's wives used to shop together. Brown was a lawyer with some political experience. His position before joining FEMA? He was the Judges and Stewards Commissioner for The Arabian Horse Association which registers Arabian horses in the United States. What in the world does this have to do with Emergency Management? Why would Brown, or Allbaugh for that matter, take positions for which they were clearly not qualified? Because the Bush administration liked to hand out executive leadership positions as political favors rather than place people with true hands-on experience.

This is a behind-the-scenes look at the political impact of those decisions that became a disaster in-and-of themselves in terms of the aftermath of Katrina. Bush made hugely inept decisions regarding FEMA. And what did Bush have to lose? He was already in his second term. New Orleans paid the ultimate price for the president's failed judgment. They lost almost everything.

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