The Greatest


Deadly Indifference: The Perfect (Political) Storm: Hurricane Katrina, the Bush White House, and Beyond

By: Michael D. Brown

Michael D. Brown is the former head of FEMA. He worked as a law professor at Oklahoma City University, and ran for Congress 1988 but lost against his Democratic opponent. After leaving office he became a radio talk show host in Denver, Colorado, where he currently resides with his family.

Looking Away in the Face of Danger

By: Jessica Le

Nature is an unpredictable force. It can be anticipated and prepared for, but ultimately it is unpredictable, capable of making the least expected turns and the most unexpected damage to property and lives. And when the needs of people are not met in excruciating times, political turmoil ensues. Such as the infamous case of Hurricane Katrina, which showed how “familiarity breeds indifference, and indifference can turn deadly.” 1 The storm was destructive and dangerous, devastating Louisiana, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama in the late summer of 2005. In Deadly Indifference: The Perfect (Political) Storm: Hurricane Katrina, the Bush White House, and Beyond by former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Michael D. Brown, it explains the disaster in depth. The book revolves around Brown recountings his days of handling the Hurricane Katrina crisis and reflecting on the mismanagement of government officials on local, state, and federal levels.

The first quarter of the book regards the calm before the storm. Chapter One begins with Brown defining deadly indifference and the insensitivity to disaster that can come from budget constraints, racial and economic bias, or wanting to appear composed and prepared to deal with the situation. Chapter Two discusses the difficulty of taking action prior to the storm due to lack of cooperation, even when FEMA warned how severe Hurricane Katrina would turn out. Brown analyzes the mindset of politicians to not take action until they are completely sure of the consequences and states, “React before you know what you are reacting against and constituents will be outraged if you’re wrong. React when you are certain of what you are acting against and you may be too late.” 2 Chapter Three relates the main point of the previous chapter to the actions of the politicians in charge when Hurricane Katrina struck. Brown accuses Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, of escalating the crisis because of his hesitance to act; The hesitance, fueled by indifference to the looming threat before him, was part of why Hurricane Katrina turned out as a disaster. Brown declares every politician will act on selfishness, doing what will look good for them and advance their careers.

The second quarter of the book supplies more background information relating to Hurricane Katrina. Chapter Four addresses the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Louisiana state government to maintain the worn levees protecting New Orleans. Brown reveals the levees were not regularly repaired and would fail the New Orleans residents when they most needed it. He describes how this negligence is frustrating because of how avoidable it was -- residents and officials knew the city was below sea level and yet they did nothing to prevent the outcome. Brown criticizes the politicians in the aftermath who were desperate to “not look as though they made a mistake” and “look heroic in the aftermath, regardless of what they did or did not do to help.” 3 Mid-chapter, Brown retracts his accusatory tone and admits his own mistakes. He notes that evacuation plans did not consider pets, the psychological trauma of being uprooted, or the social and emotional security of the survivors. The next chapter concerns Hurricane Charley, a storm that occurred a year prior to Hurricane Katrina, and the lessons learned from it. Chapter Six explains how man-made disasters such as the 9/11 terrorist attack are easier to handle in comparison to natural disasters because of the public perception that natural disasters are easier to prepare for and that there is enough time to protect lives and property. Brown points out though this is an incorrect belief, it is a widely-held one, making it difficult to calm the people and the media when they direct their anger towards the government.

Next, Chapters Seven through Nine focuses on the events immediately before and after Hurricane Katrina. Chapter Seven details on the hesitance of Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to ask for federal assistance or declare an emergency. Blanco decided to let Nagin make decisions for his own city, but he waited for too long to take any action. By the time he ordered a mandatory evacuation, it was too late and the Hurricane hit. Rescuers and survivors had to use the Superdome as a makeshift shelter, where the building structure was inappropriate for natural disasters and there was not enough supplies. Chapter Eight discusses meeting with President George W. Bush and media perceptions of Hurricane Katrina. Brown, who reveals he was “intimidated by the man known as POTUS,” 4 blames himself for his inability to convince Bush that FEMA was unable to properly do its job and needed intervention. The chapter details the poor publicity Brown and his colleagues received because of the perception that the government was indifferent to the Hurricane Katrina crisis. Chapter Nine highlights the problems that arose in the aftermath because of people who refused to follow directions or help others. Brown comments on the shoot-on-sight order for looters and gangsters issued in Mississippi and contrasts this to the chaos in Louisiana. He uses this to attack Governor Blanco for doing nothing to control the situation. Brown reflects everything that led up to the disaster, lamenting how the authorities should have taken more actions to prevent the outcome.

The last quarter of the book focuses on media and the failed aftermath. Chapter Ten covers media portrayal of Hurricane Katrina and the difficulties Brown faced dealing with other government agencies and officials. He criticizes journalists who seemed to use the suffering of the people for personal gain and to further their career, calling them “aggressive, highly competitive” people after “brownie points with [their] boss.” 5 Despite this, Brown wishes he had allowed more journalists to come along with the rescue parties, because the publicity could have provided him an opportunity to clarify facts and bring in more private and federal assistance. Brown shifts to discussing the incompetence of the federal government and corruption of the state government. An example of the federal incompetence was when the Transportation Security Administration wasted time evacuating survivors by trying to decide how to screen all of them before letting them board the plane, and for state government, Brown uses Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, denouncing him as self-serving and corrupt. This was because the senator ordered an important ship to return to Pascagoula, even though it was meant to help the New Orleans survivors, just so that he could gain positive media coverage for his reelection. The next chapter also discusses media and the attacks on FEMA and Brown. Time Magazine wrote an incorrect article about Brown that damaged his reputation. President Bush allowed these attacks to continue because it would save himself from media criticism. Afterwards, Brown describes the changes in his work environment leading up to his resignation. Hurricane Katrina would be his last conflict. The last chapter returns to the topic of deadly indifference, where Brown states the two types of risks to be aware of—those that are anticipated, and those that are ignored—and highlights the risk ignored is more dangerous. He mentions how people will try to control the unknown with more preventive measures, but they will not address the root cause of the problems. The book closes with Brown admitting he is not exempt from deadly indifference.

Michael Brown’s book revolves around his thesis of how indifference to potential dangers can be harmful. This is true because familiarity with surroundings can instill a false sense of security and cause people to let their guards down, allowing danger to strike when it is least expected. This will lead to a never-ending cycle of destruction and can be found in nearly all people. An example that can be used to prove this thesis is the levees: intended to prevent New Orleans from flooding, under-maintained levees caused by indifference to the risks resulted in a worsened aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Since the citizens had withstood earlier hurricanes without problems, they failed to consider the “additional expense...proper maintenance of the levees to ensure they retained their original strength.” 6 This relates to Brown’s thesis because both government and residents were indifferent to the danger the levees posed, indifferent to the fact it could be breached. Another example to prove Brown’s thesis is Ray Nagin, who waited too long to order the mandatory evacuation of the New Orleans residents. His selfishness and indecisiveness to act because he was afraid of backlash ended up costing more citizen lives. Without these mistakes, the aftermath could have resulted in easier rescuing and evacuation. Both examples were instances of indifference to a foreseen problem that could have been avoided, and they prove why people need to be aware of situations and react properly to avoid future damage.

The book accounts Brown’s personal experience of dealing with Hurricane Katrina and every way it went wrong in depth. This book, in turn, contains his professional insight and crucial information not released to the press during the crisis. As the former head of FEMA, Brown’s insight is valuable, since his job allowed him to oversee many other disasters and gain important knowledge of these types of situations. Coordinating crisis responses from man-made disasters such as 9/11 to natural disasters such as Hurricane Charley contributes to Brown’s vast expanse of knowledge regarding the government, allowing him to explain the inner workings of the federal system and the people running it. This grants the reader a deeper understanding of how government failed the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. His top-down view over the situation allows him to report information the reader otherwise may not find in other sources—an example being when Governor Blanco requested help from President Bush, and he “went to bed without acting on the request.”7 Brown’s unique experience provides readers a fresh perspective from the usual information they may find from other sources. It should be noted, however, that Brown’s unique experience is not without bias. As the declared scapegoat of the failure, the book leans towards shifting blame away from himself. Brown uses a mostly accusatory tone throughout his book, admitting to his own mistakes only two or three times. Though unique, insightful, and intriguing, Brown’s book is a primary source, meaning he has his own opinions that he is trying to project onto the audience.

The time period is important because it affected how the book was written. Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, during the first year of Bush’s second term, and was only one of the many hurricanes that ravaged the gulf coast during the hurricane season. It was these hurricanes which weakened the levees so they would fail during Hurricane Katrina. Society also had waged a war on terrorism; the time period was anti-terrorist for two reasons: anti-terrorist sentiment leftover from the Cold War, and the 9/11 attack, which revived nationalist and nativist ideologies. America then focused more on countering potential terrorist attacks rather than recognizing the impact of natural disasters. The majority of attention was placed on preventive measures and not responsive measures. This view meant that FEMA was more prepared for terrorism responses than natural disaster responses by the time Hurricane Katrina struck, and understandably, Brown criticizes this. In contrast to his time period, Brown believed the government should have placed a priority on other dangers than terrorism. He questioned why the government and society chose to “invest [their] fears in areas that frightened [them] yet seem within [their] ability to control”.8 This fear of terrorism, along with the events of the hurricane season, caused his agency and the federal government to be caught unprepared and fail to do their job properly, thus resulting in Brown writing a book to clarify the mistakes of the failure.

As a book written about a controversial matter, numerous sources have critiqued Brown’s book and his viewpoint. From Publisher’s Weekly, they note that the book is “no mea culpa, but rather a blast of blame aimed at numerous parties,”meaning Brown focused too much on pushing the blame off himself instead of apologizing for his mistakes.9 They state that he has questionable judgement and at times appears more concerned with his reputation than what happened in Hurricane Katrina. A second source by Jared Wade, a senior editor of Risk Management, expresses a similar opinion, though he does recognize that Brown rightfully wants to clear his reputation since there was so much more to the failed Hurricane Katrina response. Wade summarizes the main points of the book and each time Michael Brown admitted to his mistakes, but remarks that they are not good enough and that Brown should have taken a more apologetic stance on the issue. Wade states, “At worst, this book can be summed up as a man telling the world this wasn’t his fault. At best, it is a man saying he was powerless to fail any less spectacularly.” 10

These critiques are not too far off—Brown’s book is intriguing, informative, and well-written, even if there is obvious bias in his work. His book is able to provide information unknown to the majority of the public, but at the same time he uses this mainly to clear his name. For example, when a memo was sent with his signature on it, Brown reveals that this was done with autopen technology, but does not choose to say so when it is released in the press because it “would sound like the cop-out of a liar.” 11 At times like this it does appear as though Brown only cares about his reputation. Throughout his work, Brown takes on an accusatory tone, pointing fingers at most people mentioned in the book while minimally admitting to his own mistakes. Perhaps he did make the right decisions most of the time, but because of the fact the book was written by the scapegoat of Hurricane Katrina, it is difficult to tell whether he really did make as few mistakes as he claimed to. Readers should maintain some degree of skepticism when reading this book and look for unbiased sources to draw conclusions.

Brown’s book reflects social, political, and technological changes from the end of the Cold War and the late 20th century. The events of the book reflect the Cold War idea of war on terrorism, which assigned more priority to terrorist preventive measures and not as much priority on natural disasters. More preventative agencies like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cropped up in place of response teams. Brown says so himself that “the idea of a natural disaster gradually faded for the planning personnel to such a degree that...FEMA was unable to handle hurricane damage.” 12 As for technology, the book illustrates how digital technology allowed online conferences between government officials and easy ways for journalists to spread their news. This technology allowed Brown to communicate with members of his department as well as President Bush, as evident in the video conferences they held. Journalists, like the officials, used digital technology primarily for communication, but with the public rather than a select crowd. This made it easy for them to publish their news and photos of the storm. The time period of Hurricane Katrina was one that was influenced by Cold War roots and changed by technological advancements.

Even though it may seem like the failures of Hurricane Katrina can only be applied to government, this is not true. The indifference witnessed in political leaders can be changed, starting with the citizens. Brown states, Even though indifference can be “a way to feel safe [and] secure,” it should never be forgotten that these dangers faced are reality.13

[1] Brown, Michael D. Deadly Indifference: The Perfect Political Storm: Hurricane Katrina, The Bush White House, and Beyond, 2011. 190.
[2] Brown, Michael D. 22.
[3] Brown, Michael D. 33.
[4] Brown, Michael D. 102.
[5] Brown, Michael D. 133.
[6] Brown, Michael D. 26.
[7] Brown, Michael D. 93.
[8] Brown, Michael D. 198.
[9] “Nonfiction Book Review: Deadly Indifference: The Perfect (Political) Storm: Hurricane Katrina, the Bush White House, and Beyond by Michael D. Brown and Ted Schwarz. Taylor Trade, $24.95 (244p) ISBN 978-1-58979-485-6.” PublishersWeekly.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2017.
[10] Wade, Jared. Book Review: Deadly Indifference. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 May 2017.
[11] Brown, Michael D. 91.
[12] Brown, Michael D. 6.
[13] Brown, Michael D. 200.