Like so many stories, it began with a tip. Bush administration bureaucrats had blown off the state in its attempt to solve a common-sense problem--getting backup power to emergency workers in disaster-prone areas. When we started looking into it, we discovered not only was it true, it was part of a much larger change at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
As Jon Elliston and Barbara Solow make painfully clear this week, FEMA has been turned inside-out by the Bush administration as planning for natural disasters takes a backseat to terrorism. The changes started before 9/11 with cuts to programs aimed at lessening a disaster's effects ahead of time, and got worse. As U.S. Rep. David Price points out, they had to find money to offset tax cuts for the rich and pay for the war in Iraq. And that's just one policy at one agency. Lost in the smokescreen that surrounds the presidential campaign is the effect our decision will have on hundreds of programs across the breadth and depth of the federal government's responsibilities.
The two reporters on the story are Indy veterans. Jon Elliston, 33, got his master's degree in journalism from UNC and was a staff writer for two years before becoming a freelancer specializing in national security and civil liberties issues. He broke the story last year about two Chapel Hill police officers posing as FBI agents. Barbara Solow, 45, has a master's in journalism from Columbia University and has been a staff writer and editor at the Indy for five years. Her last cover story was about the right-wing assault on academia. The project was a joint effort between the Independent and the Association of Alternative News Weeklies, an organization of more than 100 newspapers across the country. It will be running in many of them this week.
The story came home to Elliston while he was writing in Asheville. As hurricanes plowed through town, the power went out, the water was cut off, and one night he had to go out and put a tarp on his sister's roof in the howling wind and rain.
Then, he saw the stories in the Charlotte Observer--Western North Carolina had been cut out of funding to modernize its flood maps just as his county was receiving millions to buy surveillance cameras and bomb-disposal robots.
"There needs to be a broader argument about what helps a community prepare itself for threats," he says. "This counter-terrorism impetus has shifted hundreds of millions of dollars for gear and training, while in some communities the threats they face every year are natural, not man-made."