Former FEMA Director Michael Brown (of “Brownie” fame) writes in Politico that he isn’t to blame for many of the failures in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. His explanation why he didn’t force the city to evacuate–involving federalism and the posse comitatus act–is fascinating.
I’m often asked, as the person who was running FEMA when Hurricane Katrina hit, why I didn’t evacuate New Orleans. My response is simple—FEMA had no authority to do that under the Constitution, which clearly establishes a system of federalism in which state and local governments are autonomous governmental entities. We call first responders “first” for a reason. When you dial 9-1-1 your call isn’t answered by an operator at 500 C Street SW, Washington, D.C., 20472. Your call is answered by a local government entity that has first and primary responsibility for a disaster.
Could FEMA have ordered the evacuation of New Orleans? Yes, had it waived posse comitatus and invoked the Insurrection Act, which Congress ultimately amended in 2006 to permit deployment of troops in response to natural disasters. That unprecedented action was actually contemplated days after landfall aboard Air Force One—and I advocated for it. After I advised the president to federalize the response, he sat with Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Air Force One and outlined his plan. We immediately started drafting the federalization documents for the president’s signature, but Governor Blanco requested time to think it over and the president acquiesced. While the governor considered her options, the city became more and more dysfunctional. Blanco ultimately rejected the president’s plan, and political considerations eventually pushed the idea aside.
Go figure. The Bush Administration considered invoking the Insurrection Act to evacuate New Orleans after Katrina.