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Ex-FEMA Chief Blames White House

Jane Bullock was chief of staff for the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the Clinton administration under the leadership of Director James Lee Witt. In an interview with CBS News correspondent Thalia Assuras, Bullock placed the blame for the slow, stumbling federal response squarely on the shoulders of the Bush administration. These are excerpts from that interview.

THALIA ASSURAS: Where do you place the majority of the blame?

JANE BULLOCK: I think there was a lack of understanding (of) what it would take to respond to this disaster and I think the fact that FEMA has been marginalized and that the focus has been on terrorism as opposed to on all hazards, focus that includes other risk.

The infrastructure at the state, local and federal level has been deconstructed.

ASSURAS: By what?

BULLOCK: All the funding goes for terrorism so the relationships that are built, had been built in the '90s, through a series of disasters don't exist any more. ...

At the federal level, unfortunately, we have leadership that has no experience with emergency management and a disaster, even a small one, is a logistical nightmare. ...

The trigger wasn't pulled, though, and that's the leadership question. The minute the president made that declaration all of the resources, both civil and military, of the government was available to respond. ...

However, somebody — the director of FEMA or the secretary of Homeland Security — has to pull the trigger and get them there. I mean, isn't it amazing that once the military came in that things got better very quickly?

If the declaration was signed Saturday the 27th before landfall, why was the military not pre-positioned? This is a repeat of Hurricane Andrew where you heard people saying, "Well, they didn't ask for (help)."

ASSURAS: So you're saying they didn't have to wait for the request?

BULLOCK: Exactly. They already had the request. ... The mayor of New Orleans and the governors of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama had already said that they, their capacity and resources were going to be overwhelmed. They needed federal support.

I think that there were opportunities. We knew the hurricane was there; was a big one. We had planned for this. They had a drill with this same scenario — Hurricane Pam. We knew there was going to be problems with evacuation. We knew that the Superdome was going to be the evacuation point of last resort. Why was there not water, food, palates of water and food flown in? ... The leadership dropped the ball. ...

FEMA was an independent agency, direct contact to the president. FEMA become a directorate in a cabinet level agency three steps down. And now if you look at (Homeland Security Secretary Michael) Chertoff's ... proposed reorganization, FEMA becomes an office.

How can you, as the coordinator, … task other cabinet level secretaries and expect them to respond when you're operating from a position of weakness? ...

One of the questions I had early on is, "Who's in charge?" Is it (FEMA Director) Mike Brown? Is it Chertoff? You don't really know. And I think that's going to be a continuing and even worse problem as we get into the recovery. ...

This is a systemic problem that goes from the very top to the very bottom. We have to rebuild a response system in the country and I think it has to have leadership that knows what they're doing. ...

When you have an agency with such a single focus on prevention of terrorism, they are going to become bogged down in that focus. ...

And, once again, I look back at the '80s. We're repeating history here. If the leadership and the management of the agency do not realize that a function of government, a true function of government, is to be there for their citizens during times of disasters, they're not going to put a priority on it. And I don't believe this leadership has put that priority.

ASSURAS: Is the country prepared for the next "big one"?

BULLOCK: We all should be very nervous. If this is how they respond to a disaster that they know is happening, or know is coming — a hurricane — how are they going to respond to a dirty bomb that they don't know? I think the system's broken. I do not think they are prepared.

ASSURAS: How much are budget cuts an issue.

BULLOCK: I think budget cuts are an issue. ... It's not a priority to them. They don't recognize that the government needs to be there before the event happens to help every person; to help the people that have the money and the wherewithal to evacuate; to help the people that either do not have the resources or health or can't evacuate.

Our government should be there for them. This, the level of deaths that will come out of this event, is unacceptable in a country like the United States. ...

I think they are ultimately responsible for what happens when a federal declaration is given. They make a commitment to the American people when that declaration is signed. They did not meet that commitment. This administration did not recognize the importance of providing an effective and swift response during times of disaster. Therefore, they didn't give it a priority. ...

I put the responsibility on the administration.

ASSURAS: For not responding?

BULLOCK: For not responding, for deconstructing a system that worked. ... And for not understanding that this is the time when citizens need their government to be there to help them and it was not there.

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