Another Piece of the Puzzle Snaps into Place

We’ve been tipping our hat a lot this week, but there has been quite a bit of good journalism coming out of Hurricane Katrina and its ramifications, so here’s one more bow, this time to NPR.

Whistleblowers are a journalist’s lifeblood, providing a reporter — and the public — with crucial inside information that would otherwise remain buried. Much of the time these sources remain anonymous, but as the Washington Post recently discovered when one of its anonymous sources in the White House was caught lying to it, you sometimes have to take what these sources say with a grain of salt. So it stands to reason that it’s considered the best of all possible journalistic worlds when a source willing to be named will step forth with on-the-record transcriptions — even at the risk of their own career.

Such a source came to NPR this morning, in the form of one Leo Bosner, an emergency management specialist at FEMA, who is in charge of the group that alerts FEMA’s higher-ups to potential crises situations and manages the response. A clearly exasperated Bosner spoke candidly with NPR reporter Laura Sullivan about the agency’s lame and late response to hurricane Katrina. Bosner, who’s been with FEMA since 1979, recounts how he sent daily e-mails, called National Situation Updates, to Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff and FEMA’s Michael Brown in the days before Katrina hit; each one warned of the storm’s growing strength and the potential danger it posed to New Orleans - and each one seemed to be roundly ignored.

Bosner accuses FEMA — his employer — of failing to call for the mobilization of the National Guard or to assure that evacuation buses were at the ready. As Sullivan puts it, he recounts how “he and his colleagues at FEMA’s D.C. headquarters were shocked by the lack of response” by FEMA in particular and the federal government in general — not just throughout the weekend before Katrina hit, but even on Monday, August 29, the day all hell began to break loose in New Orleans. In the NPR interview, Bosner takes us through the weekend at FEMA’s headquarters, charting the confusion and disbelief among his co-workers as situation update after situation update was ignored. The telling updates sent to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff and FEMA chief Michael Brown make for chilling reading and, thankfully, NPR links to four of them, beginning with one written on Friday, August 26. One early update reports of readings from buoys at sea of waves 46 feet high forming as Katrina bore down on the Gulf coast. The email from the day before the levees broke in New Orleans ominously predicts that “[s]ome levees in the greater New Orleans area could be overtopped.”

We wrote yesterday that, thanks to some intrepid journalism, several pieces of the larger puzzle of this story are beginning to come together. Now Bosner, courtesy of NPR, brings us not just another piece of the puzzle, but an encouraging indication that at least some people on the inside, shocked by the inability of the government to respond to its own red alerts, are willing to talk.

Bosner, if not the first, is one of the first. Thanks to him, we now know what it was like to have been inside the frustratingly ineffectual FEMA offices during a critical time, yelling through a digital bullhorn at deaf ears in the executive suites.

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.