The Salt Lake Tribune reports that Utah firefighters are upset because instead of being used for search and rescue, they have been asked to be PR people and background for photos (this photo does not list the firefighters’ place of origin):
Many of the firefighters, assembled from Utah and throughout the United States by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, thought they were going to be deployed as emergency workers.
Instead, they have learned they are going to be community-relations officers for FEMA, shuffled throughout the Gulf Coast region to disseminate fliers and a phone number: 1-800-621-FEMA.
While there’s something to be said for having folks trained in first aid dealing with evacuees (part of the stated rationale), surely given the immense need for trained search and rescue personnel, handing out fliers would be a perfect task for civilian volunteers... never mind that many of those that would need FEMA help may not have access to a working phone. Still,
a team of 50 [firefighters] Monday morning quickly was ushered onto a flight headed for Louisiana. The crew's first assignment: to stand beside President Bush as he tours devastated areas.
(While I am not familiar with this specific paper, when it comes to presidential elections, Utah historically ranks as the most Republican state in the nation, hardly a bastion for Bush-bashing.) Chicago’s NBC affiliate ran a similar story involving some Indiana firefighters who similarly felt wasted, got sick of waiting around, and went home (although they are eager to return).
There are related charges floating around about rescue equipment being shipped in solely for a backdrop for Bush without later being sent to disaster sites. These charges surely warrant more investigation and verification; this is the sort of thing I would hope to god is not true. However, in one of the more striking news clip videos I’ve seen, Senator Mary Landrieu points out areas of New Orleans by helicopter and charges just this sort of negligence (The clip is from ABC’s This World on Sunday, 9/4). The image of only a single piece of construction equipment working on the now infamous 17th Street levee breach is rather disturbing.
To add to the mix, FEMA does not want reporters to photograph the dead. Reuters followed up their short blurb here with a slightly longer piece here.
Meanwhile, in an excellent, now much-cited post (“Making the Rounds” 9/7) Brian Williams reports on the tense atmosphere in New Orleans, where a guardsman aimed a gun at a group of reporters (Williams notes the level of stress and that the guardsman was reprimanded). He also observes:
Someone else points out on television as I post this: the fact that the National Guard now bars entry (by journalists) to the very places where people last week were barred from LEAVING (The Convention Center and Superdome) is a kind of perverse and perfectly backward postscript to this awful chapter in American history.
Josh Marshall has a couple thoughtful posts about these disturbing trends, here and here. I feel he veers a bit too alarmist in one of them, but nonetheless these are important discussions to be having.
On this note of controlling perception, several news organizations and blogs have noted that the number #1, 2 and 3 people at FEMA all lack emergency planning experience. They are all essentially PR people, or less charitably, political hacks.
And as with Iraq - and frankly, everything else - this administration seems to believe that appearance is more important than job performance. I wish to god they would grasp that the best PR is doing a good job in the first place, and put the bulk of their efforts there instead.
UPDATE: Some folks have theorized the Williams’ post pressured the authorities to ease up on their efforts to restrict reporters, because several organizations reported freer access again. Williams got so much attention he’s posted a follow-up, which mentions that Howard Kurtz will be writing about the whole story online for The Washington Post on Friday 9/9.