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A disturbing view from inside FEMA

Worker: Decision-makers lack disaster experience

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Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
New Orleans (Louisiana)
Department of Homeland Security
Michael Chertoff

(CNN) -- As Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast three weeks ago, veteran workers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency braced for an epic disaster.

But their bosses, political appointees with almost no emergency management experience, didn't seem to share the sense of urgency, a FEMA veteran said.

"We told these fellows that there was a killer hurricane heading right toward New Orleans," Leo Bosner, a 26-year FEMA employee and union leader told CNN. "We had done our job, but they didn't do theirs."( Watch video of the whistleblower)

Bosner's storm warning came early Saturday, three days before Hurricane Katrina came ashore in eastern Louisiana.

"New Orleans is of particular concern because much of that city lies below sea level," he warned in his daily alert to Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, then-FEMA chief Michael Brown and other Bush administration officials.

"If the hurricane winds blow from a certain direction, there are dire predictions of what may happen in the city," it said. FEMA's tepid response while Katrina's victims grew desperate, suffered and died has been acknowledged and widely criticized.

The agency's failure is a tragic element of the Hurricane Katrina story. But, according to Bosner, FEMA's troubles came as no surprise after its role and stature shifted when federal agencies were reshuffled in response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

Raised concerns

A longtime union leader, Bosner has been a whistle-blower before. This time, he says, colleagues are quietly thanking him for speaking out.

A year ago he raised concerns that Brown was in over his head. Brown stepped down earlier this month after he was removed from leading the government's Katrina relief effort. After resigning, he criticized local officials in an interview with The New York Times, saying the White House wasn't at fault.

"I have nothing personal against Mike Brown," Bosner told CNN. "I feel badly about the guy. But he took a job he was never trained for. The man was a lawyer."

FEMA, formerly an independent agency led by a Cabinet-level official, was among the 22 federal agencies shuffled into the Department of Homeland Security. Brown was an undersecretary who answered to the secretary of Homeland Security.

Before joining the Bush administration in 2001, Brown had spent a decade as the stewards and judges commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association.

The Washington Post reported earlier this month that the top three FEMA officials had ties to Bush's 2000 presidential election campaign. Five of eight top FEMA officials had no crisis management experience, the newspaper said.

Chertoff and Brown have legal backgrounds but scant emergency management experience.

Brown came to work for FEMA in 2001 as legal counsel to his friend, then-FEMA director Joe Allbaugh, who was Bush's 2000 campaign manager. Brown assumed the top job when Allbaugh left FEMA in 2003.

Chertoff is a former federal prosecutor and appellate court judge. As a prosecutor, he was involved in developing legal strategies for dealing with terrorism following the September 11 attacks. He was appointed Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in February by a 98-0 Senate vote.

Chertoff worked from home the day Bosner first warned of the hurricane's catastrophic potential for New Orleans, CNN's Tom Foreman reported. Chertoff also has been criticized for writing a memo the day after Katrina struck, delegating authority to Brown and deferring to the White House rather than taking charge.

Chertoff has not commented, but a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said he was in touch with Brown the weekend Katrina approached New Orleans.

The homeland security spokesperson also defended the memo, saying it merely put in writing procedures already in place. But the national disaster plan states that Homeland Security is in charge of the response to disasters like Katrina.

Clamoring for reform

Committees in the House and Senate are looking into FEMA and the government's flawed response, and officials are clamoring for reform. Former President Bill Clinton, who revamped FEMA during his administration, is among them. (Watch video of Clinton on FEMA )

"Clearly, the FEMA response was slow and there are lots of reasons that I think that happened," Clinton told CNN on Friday. "I believe that there should be some reorganization there."

Clinton, and a national group of state disaster officials, say anyone who heads FEMA should be required to have emergency management credentials. Clinton added that the FEMA chief should answer to the president.

"It's sort of the standard thing," Clinton said, "but when an emergency strikes, that person becomes the most important person in the federal government."

The National Emergency Management Association, a non-profit association of state directors of emergency services, also lists crisis management qualifications as a must for the next FEMA head. In a posting on its Web site, it also called for the the FEMA chief to answer directly to the president ,rather than to the secretary of Homeland Security.

Bosner agrees. He wrote a memo in 1992 that raised red flags about FEMA and helped lead to reform during the Clinton administration.

"FEMA's biggest problem is that too few people in the agency are trained to help in emergencies," he wrote. "We have good soldiers but crummy generals."

For the rest of the 1990s, FEMA improved, Bosner said. But since 2001 the agency has again become demoralized and experienced disaster experts have left.

"At FEMA ... we have actually slid backwards," he said.

CNN's Tom Foreman contributed to this report

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