Alas, Camille’s most impoverished victims rarely received such aid. Applicants for housing trailers had to show they owned a property lot, while loan seekers needed to put up collateral. Meanwhile, complicated paperwork rules made it nearly impossible for African-Americans – the poorest and least-educated hurricane victims – to receive aid. Of 617 small-business loans issued after Camille in Mississippi, which had the highest percentage of black citizens of any state, just 21 went to non-whites.
Similar reports led President Jimmy Carter to press for the creation of FEMA, which Congress established in 1979. But under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the agency became “a dumping ground for political hacks,” as a House committee reported in 1993. To direct it, Bush had appointed a close friend of his chief of staff with no direct experience in emergency relief.
The next Bush president put FEMA in the hands of Michael D. Brown, whose main “qualification” seemed to be his prior directorship of the International Arabian Horse Association. George W. Bush’s tribute to him during hurricane Katrina – “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” – would become one of the administration’s signal embarrassments, given Mr. Brown's notoriously incompetent handling of the disaster.