Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.
By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 4:48 PM GMT on June 07, 2006
This is part 3 of an interview I did with the Northwest Florida Daily News of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, that was published on Sunday, May 28. The questions were posed to me by Del Stone Jr., Deputy Managing Editor and self-admitted weather nut. I'll be back to live blogging on June 14.
Q. Dr. William Gray is often quoted in the media for his pre-season storm predictions. Do you have any opinion one way or the other about the accuracy or efficacy of his reports?
A. I like his forecasts, as well as the seasonal hurricane forecasts put out by NOAA. They have some skill, and are valuable for helping determine if a hurricane season will be active or quiet.
Q. In the wake of last year's Hurricane Katrina, you were pointed in your remarks about the Bush administration's response to the storm. Taking into consideration all of the information about that response that has been released since then, has your opinion changed?
A. My criticism of the Bush Administration was primarily aimed at false comments made about the flooding of New Orleans being an unexpected disaster. This was a valid criticism, because this disaster has been expected by virtually everyone who studies hurricanes. I wasn't critical of the bungled response to the disaster, but certainly could have been. I also made a more general criticism of our political system, asking how it is that a nation as wealthy as ours was not able to evacuate the thousands of poor people who had no transportation of their own. I blamed this on the political process in our country where the wealth of one's campaign contributors is our politicians' primary concern, not the welfare of the poor in New Orleans. How is that Mexico, a much poorer country than our own, suffered only four deaths from Hurricane Wilma last year? Recall that Wilma hit the most heavily populated tourist area of Mexico as a Category 4 hurricane, and sat over Cancun for three days. And Hurricane Emily hit Mexico twice, first as a Category 4 at Cozumel, then as a Category 3 near Texas. But no one died in Emily! The difference is that the government of Mexico made a determined effort to evacuate those at risk, and provided transportation. In the U.S., a totally inadequate effort was made--in part, because the people affected were poor and of little concern to the politicians. The City of New Orleans was primarily responsible for coming up with a hurricane evacuation plan, with help from both the state and federal governments. All three branches of govenment failed this responsibility. In fact, a repeat of Katrina is entirely possible--newly re-elected Mayor Nagin has not yet come up with a workable plan to get those without transportation out of New Orleans for the next hurricane. How is it he got re-elected? According to a May 22 article on cnn.com, the bus drivers Nagin wants to use have not yet signed on, and the city has too few buses. The state and federal government are supposed to help out, but this hasn't happened yet. There are plans to get help from Amtrak and the commercial airlines, but again, there is nothing official. Is it asking too much for the federal government to step in and provide National Guard troops to transport people out? Mexico was able to get its citizens out of harm's way, why can't we? We need to take a hard look at our system of goverment in this country and answer that question. I think we need to move towards more public financing of elections and other reform measures such as Instant Runoff Voting to help reduce the influence of money on politics.
Q. It was recently suggested FEMA should be dismantled, to be replaced by a new and larger government disaster-response agency. Do you think such an agency would do a better job of assisting the victims of hurricanes, and if not, what would you advise lawmakers on Capitol Hill?
A. FEMA has not done well as a branch of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), since that agency has given priority to anti-terrorism programs. FEMA and DHS are bureaucratically incompatible. For example, FEMA was using hurricane forecasts from NHC in the days leading up to Katrina, while DHS was using forecasts provided by Accuweather! The two sets of forecasts were considerably different, so the two agencies were never on the same page, even before the disaster. It makes sense to try putting FEMA back on its own again. However, this will not magically solve the agency's problems--remember that FEMA was an independent agency during the response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, when the emergency manager of Dade County, Florida famously pleaded, "Where the hell is the cavalry?"
What is needed is for the Bush Administration to put competent people in charge of FEMA with disaster response experience. Political appointees like Michael Brown, who was an official with the International Arabian Horse Association before he came to FEMA, are a recipe for disaster. Congress needs to establish some sort of oversight on the administration of FEMA to ensure the organization is not a dumping ground for political appointees. Since President Carter formed FEMA, only Clinton appointed a FEMA director who had professional disaster management experience. And where was the press on this matter? Where was the investigative journalism needed to call attention to Michael Brown's lack of credentials before Katrina? I think in general the press has been far too negligent investigating and reporting on the qualifications of the government officials who are responsible for ensuring the safety of Americans. Another example of this is the agency responsible for food safety in America--the Department of Agriculture. Right now you'd have a hard time finding a federal agency more completely dominated by the industry it was created to regulate. But you don't hear the press saying much about this conflict of interest, despite the fact that each year food-borne illnesses kill four times as many Americans as died in Hurricane Katrina.
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