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Dr. Robert Shaler: Identifying Katrina's Victims

Robert Shaler, former director forensic biology at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, led efforts to identify remains at the World Trade Center attacks. He discusses the challenges that lie ahead for those responsible for identifying the bodies of Hurricane Katrina's victims.


Other segments from the episode on September 8, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 8, 2005: Interview with Robert Schaler; Commentary on language; Interview with Dick Polman; Review of J.R. Moehringer's memoir "The tender bar."


DATE September 8, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Robert Schaler discusses efforts to identify the dead
from the World Trade Center

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

While rescue operations continue along the Gulf Coast areas affected by
Hurricane Katrina, hundreds, possibly thousands of bodies lay in streets,
houses and floodwaters. Eventually, those bodies will have to be identified.
My guest, Robert Schaler, directed the four-year effort to identify the
remains from the World Trade Center attack. There he faced a similar task,
since the remains were so badly damaged he had to rely on DNA profiles to
establish their identities. Schaler was director of forensic biology at the
New York City office of the medical examiner. He's also the author of a
forthcoming book, "Who They Were: Inside the World Trade Center Study, The
Unprecedented Effort to Identify the Missing." I spoke to Robert Schaler this
morning about the coming task of identifying the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Well, Robert Schaler, welcome to FRESH AIR. There are many bodies waiting to
be retrieved in New Orleans; we don't know how many. What special challenges
does it present that so many bodies will have been immersed in water for days,
weeks even?

Dr. ROBERT SCHALER (Author, "Who They Were: Inside the World Trade Center
Study, the Unprecedented Effort to Identify the Missing"): The water, per se,
shouldn't affect the ability to make the identifications through DNA testing.
The problem is going to be these will probably be unrecognizable, so you won't
be able to do a visual examination and get an identification that way. The
temperature of the water, which is warm, and the humidity and heat in the area
down there is going to increase or accelerate the decomposition of the bodies,
which will, of course, affect DNA. And so the people who do the DNA testing
are going to be dealing with degrading or deteriorating DNA.

Another problem with the identification process will be that the personal
effects of the people who died won't be available. We used toothbrushes and
biopsies and pap smears and hairbrushes and razors in the World Trade Center
to get a DNA profile of the people who died. That probably or most likely
won't be available for most of the people who died because of the storm.

DAVIES: Just to clarify, what you're saying, then, is that when you have
someone you know is missing, you would go to their home and retrieve something
which would have a piece of DNA, some hair or a fingernail.

Dr. SCHALER: That's correct.

DAVIES: In this case, because many died in their homes, which are destroyed,
that's not available.

Dr. SCHALER: That's correct. So the way you do the identification then, if
you don't have dental records, which might also be missing, if you don't have
medical records, which might be missing, you're going to have to rely on
something that we call kinship analysis, which is much like a paternity test.
That means you have to collect samples from living relatives. And the problem
here is that you have to know that--in fact, that they are living relatives,
that they are biological relatives of the missing person. So this complicates
the identification process a little bit.

Some of this can be helped, perhaps, by making sure that where bodies are
collected that the information where these bodies are collected is written
down somewhere or recorded so that maybe there's, like, a street address.
Apparently there was a nursing home down there where they took 140 bodies out
yesterday, and they should be able to get information about the people who
were in that nursing home and help with that identification process. But this
is what we call an open system where we don't know how many died and we don't
have a manifest of the people who died--very similar to the World Trade Center
work. We didn't know who died and we did not have a manifest of them. An
airplane crash is a little different. You have a manifest of who died.

DAVIES: Yeah. You have experience as a forensic scientist, and there are
some other issues that those who are retrieving bodies are going to have to
confront. One of them is that some of these victims may be murder victims,
even sexual assault victims. How does that affect the way you recover and
handle bodies?

Dr. SCHALER: Well, you're still going to recover them the same way.
There'll have to be an autopsy done on everybody to just make sure that you
know how that person died. You cannot assume, as you pointed out, that they
died--that they drowned or they died from exposure. There will be sexual
assault victims, murder victims and people like that. So you'll be looking
for ventilating wounds or blunt force trauma wounds, which might be difficult
to sort out from a homicide because there's going to be---probably people were
beat up pretty badly and bounced around, so there might be blunt force trauma
injuries on some of these people who died.

DAVIES: This is, of course, complicated by the massive rescue operations that
have been under way and then eventually the reconstruction effort. How should
these bodies be handled and stored pending identification?

Dr. SCHALER: Well, they should be refrigerated. With the World Trade Center
work, they--we had refrigerated tractor trailers that were donated to us. I
mean, they came from UPS and Ben & Jerry's and others. Companies donated
these refrigerated tractor trailers. We had 18 of them. There'll be more
required for this, of course. And, you know, that's how you have to store

DAVIES: You wrote in your book that one lesson of your experience identifying
the remains of September 11th victims is that mass fatalities are all about


DAVIES: What did you mean by that?

Dr. SCHALER: Well, the families are the most important part of this. The
people who died, tragically, are dead. But families want their loved ones
back. They want to be able to grieve properly, they want to be able to say
goodbye in their own way, and they want to be able to bury their loved ones in
places where they can go back and see them. And the overwhelming thing that I
learned at the World Trade Center, and what I wrote in my book, was that these
families--the only thing that they were concerned about was getting their
loved ones back. And during the process of getting their loved ones back, all
they wanted from us was to know the truth. Whether the truth hurt them or
didn't, they wanted to know the truth of what we were doing and where we were
in the process and what they could expect and whether or not they could even
expect to get their loved ones back. So they--and the other thing they wanted
to know was, were we going to continue working? We had to continue working
and eventually let them know that there was a stopping point or a pausing
point, as Dr. Charles Hurst, the chief medical examiner, likes to say.

DAVIES: How would you handle family members who say that they want to come
and look at existing remains to see if they can identify someone? In this
case of New Orleans, there will be whole bodies, although, as you said,
probably terribly decomposed.

Dr. SCHALER: Yeah. Most likely, these will be fairly unrecognizable. And
that's what happened in the tsunami. The bodies there were decomposing
rapidly and they became unrecognizable to the families. And so making
identification requires something other than being able to see somebody. But
my recommendation is to let the family do what they want to do. We let the
families come in to be with the remains and we only allowed them to see the
remains if they wanted to. We didn't encourage it because it's not a pretty
sight. And in the World Trade Center work, you know, oftentimes the
remains--most of the time the remains were just pieces; they were not intact

DAVIES: Now you mentioned that visual identification is not likely...


DAVIES: ...and medical and dental records may in some cases be missing...


DAVIES: ...which leaves us with DNA identification. Now I think most people
would assume that getting a DNA profile would be fairly easy from a body even
in an advanced state of decomposition since, you know, it's retrieved from
even dead cells like hair. Will it be easy to get DNA profiles of the bodies?

Dr. SCHALER: It depends upon how decomposed these bodies are. Certainly the
tissue that will yield the best quality DNA will be the bones. So to even
attempt to do or waste the time and money to analyze tissue samples, it just
might be just that, a waste of time and money. So getting bone samples is
critical. Doing duplicate testing is critical, so there should probably be
two samples taken from each body, as long as that body's intact. The DNA
profile that would be obtained should not--I mean, doing--testing bone is
probably fairly complicated, but it's straightforward testing and most
laboratories, forensic laboratories, probably know how to do it.

But the DNA profile that you get out of the bones is going to be dependent
upon how degraded the DNA is. And that could be anywhere from fairly complete
DNA profiles to fairly incomplete DNA profiles, which we call partial
profiles. And this leads to a whole host of other scientific problems where
the interpretation of these profiles can be very sticky at times. And this is
a process thing that we learned and that I detailed in my book, the
interpretation of these kinds of profiles. It was a very difficult thing for
us to have to go through, and we had to learn a whole new process of
interpretation in order to get them right.

DAVIES: I don't know if this takes us too deeply into the science, but I
think a lot of us would be surprised to hear that that DNA in the bones would
be degraded. Why does that happen?

Dr. SCHALER: Well, the body around the bones is being degraded, so
eventually it's going to get to the bones as well. The bones should provide
the best source of DNA. And if we're lucky, it won't be badly degraded. And
if it's not badly degraded, then we should be able to make the
identifications. At least the DNA profiles will be there to allow us to make
the identifications.

DAVIES: So--yeah.

Dr. SCHALER: If they're degraded, then they're going to have to think about
other things that have to be done. One other test would be mitochondrial DNA.
That'll help you show that this particular person came from a particular

DAVIES: And...

Dr. SCHALER: ...and that may help as well.

DAVIES: ...mitochondrial DNA...


DAVIES: ...meaning what?

Dr. SCHALER: This is DNA--the body has two different kinds of DNA or cells
have two different kinds of DNA. One is in the nucleus of the cell, which is
the typical DNA we think about when we talk about doing paternity tests and
the kinds of DNA that we usually analyze for identifying bodies or doing
forensic testing such as in a homicide or rape case. But the other DNA is
found inside the cells in organelles called mitochondria. And it is a
separate, circular DNA which is smaller than the DNA found in the nucleus of
the cell. But it's also a little hardier and lasts longer. And that could
very well be because it's trapped inside these, mitochondria which deteriorate
slower than the rest of the cell.

DAVIES: But that kind of DNA gives a slightly less certain identification?

Dr. SCHALER: That's true. And when you have this large a number of missing
people, the mitochondrial DNA is not going to be sufficiently unique to make
an identification. But it can help you pinpoint families. So if you have DNA
from a family and you suspect that this person came from this family, then you
can use mitochondrial DNA to help show that.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Robert Schaler. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, my guest is Dr. Robert Schaler. He is the
former director of forensic biology at the New York City office of the chief
medical examiner, and he led the effort to identify remains at the World Trade
Center attacks on September 11th. He's also the author of a forthcoming book,
"Who They Were: Inside the World Trade Center DNA Story, The Unprecedented
Effort to Identify the Missing."

Somebody has to organize those who believe they have missing relatives, get
them somewhere and get DNA samples from them...


DAVIES: ...and assemble and store that into a database with some kind of way
to compare it. That sounds like...

Dr. SCHALER: That's exactly right.

DAVIES: ...a pretty big job.

Dr. SCHALER: Pretty big job. You know, you have a lot of people, and one of
the problems is that the people are all over the place now. You have a bunch
of people in the Astrodome in Houston. It would not be a bad idea to get in
there and start collecting samples, once you have everything in place to do
that. You want somebody there who understands what kinship analysis is and
the meaning of the different biological relationships and how that relates to
a DNA test. One of the problems we had in the World Trade Center work is that
this process was given to police officers who don't understand that process,
and they didn't always collect the proper sample, and we had to go back to the
families and collect additional samples, which prolonged the whole process for
another couple of years.

DAVIES: What kind of mistakes would they make?

Dr. SCHALER: Well, for example, they would say that--in one family we
had--the father gave a DNA sample. Well, a single parent giving a DNA sample
is not enough to make an identification. The police officer thought it was
fine. He, in fact, really should have collected samples from the mother and
also the children or brothers and sisters of the missing person. So when the
father called us and wanted to know why we hadn't made the identification yet,
when I looked up the information and saw that the only DNA sample we had on
record was his, I had to advise him that he had to get the rest of his family
to give DNA samples. And this prolonged the process. We had recovered his
son's remains in November of 2001, or maybe it was October, but we didn't make
the identification till the middle of 2002.

DAVIES: Have you...

Dr. SCHALER: We could have made it earlier.

DAVIES: Have you spoken to officials from New Orleans about any of these

Dr. SCHALER: I will be speaking to some today.

DAVIES: Is there a particular piece of advice you would give them as they
confront this challenge?

Dr. SCHALER: Yes. I think one of the things that you have to keep
yourself--you have to restrain yourself from being impulsive and rushing into
this. There's plenty of time. It's going to be a slow recovery process
that's going to take time. The samples can be stored and not deter--and put
in a place where they won't deteriorate any further. And once you get all
your processes in place, then start to make the identifications. The
overall--the overwhelming impulse is to get the DNA testing done as fast as
possible and make the identifications. That's really OK if you have a couple
of samples to do, but there's going to be thousands of samples to do, and each
of these should be tested twice. There should be redundant testing to ensure
the samples aren't mixed up.

So you want to take your time. You want to make sure your processes, your
tracking, your ability to track samples, your ability to match DNA profiles
and your ability to make identifications is all in place before you even
start. That way, you're going to minimize your errors. You're going to
minimize the headaches that you have in the future.

DAVIES: And in a world with a round-the-clock news cycle and hundreds, if not
thousands, of grieving relatives, there's going to be a lot of pressure to act

Dr. SCHALER: Once the world realizes that this is a DNA effort, there's
going to be immense pressure on these people down there to get this DNA
testing done fast, and there will be continual questions of why isn't--why is
DNA taking so long? Or how does the DNA process work? It's a mysterious
process to people, and when you tell somebody that you've made a--that DNA
made the identification, they're taking that information on a great deal of
faith when they recover their loved ones and bury that person. And so the
processes have to be put in place first. You have to take your time and do it
properly; otherwise, you're going to end up with a multitude of mistakes that
you're just going to have to go back and correct.

DAVIES: It's possible you could misidentify a body and give someone the wrong

Dr. SCHALER: Sure, it is. If you mix up a sample, you may very well send
the wrong body to the wrong family, and that's why you want to do redundant
testing if possible.

DAVIES: You spent so long on the World Trade Center effort. I mean, it
lasted until April of this year, as I understand.


DAVIES: Are there particular lessons that you learned and would want to share
about dealing with these families?

Dr. SCHALER: Dealing with the families?


Dr. SCHALER: The first lesson to learn is you tell them the truth. You
don't hide information from them. If they ask a question, you give them a
correct--you give them an honest answer. I'm not saying you tell them all the
gory details, but you certainly don't want to purposely mislead them. So--and
it's critical, because you want the families on your side. If the families
are against you, then you have nothing--you've done nothing but create a big
headache for yourself. In addition to that, you're being disingenuous to the
families. And these are the people who you have to think of at this time.
There's a number of issues, and we were talking about the economics and
insurance companies getting money out of this. The bottom line, to my way of
thinking, is the families are the most important. These are the people you
have to be concerned with at this time.

DAVIES: In your project identifying remains at the World Trade Center, there
was--a large team had to be assembled, and they all had to deal with, I
suspect, some pretty troubling emotional issues. I'm wondering how you dealt
with that. I mean, was there training that helped people?

Dr. SCHALER: Well, there--we had no training for that. It's something that
you deal with on your own, and one thing about forensic scientists is that we
deal with sort of like the seedy side of life. So we see a lot of troubling
things, but for the most part, we don't get involved with families. When you
start getting involved with families and you're dealing with their emotions
and their angst, then after a while, it's only going to affect you, and you
have to either walk away from it for a period of time or learn to deal with
it. Otherwise, it's going to affect you emotionally as well, and it will
probably affect you for the rest of your life.

DAVIES: Do you think that's something that people in New Orleans should be
planning for, training or counseling for folks who have to deal with these

Dr. SCHALER: Yeah, and they should be working on that now. They should have
counselors there. I mean, we had counselors at the World Trade Center in the
medical examiner's office. We could go down and get a massage if we wanted
to. There were religious people there; there were rabbis, priests, chaplains
and whatnot there to counsel people and to console people. And it happened.
People would go down and take advantage of this. It was critical. Plus, we
had the government-funded people who specialize in stress-related things.

DAVIES: You don't want to try and take all this on your own.

Dr. SCHALER: You can't.

DAVIES: Robert Schaler directed the four-year effort to identify remains at
the site of the World Trade Center attack. His new book is "Who They Were:
Inside the World Trade Center Study, The Unprecedented Effort to Identify the

We'll close this half-hour with music from Dr. John. I'm Dave Davies, and
this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Coming up, we discuss FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina with Dick
Coleman of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Also, what's the word for someone who
steals a loaf of bread to feed his family? Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers
the language used to describe what happened after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
And book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews "The Tender Bar," about growing up in
a neighborhood saloon.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Commentary: English language was unprepared for Hurricane Katrina

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Choose your term: looting, finding or foraging; evacuees, refugees or the
displaced. Over recent days, journalists have been scrambling to find the
right words to describe the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina. As our
linguist Geoff Nunberg observes, it's as if the language, too, was unprepared.


The levees around New Orleans and the government relief effort weren't the
only things that broke down in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The language
seemed to be giving in, too. `Looting,' `evacuee,' `act of God'--all of a
sudden, the familiar words for events like these seemed inadequate to contain
the inrush of reality.

Take `looting,' which originally comes from a Hindi word the British brought
back with them from India. Time was it chiefly referred to the pillaging done
by troops or bandits. But nowadays it conjures up mobs of people carting off
TV sets as the social order collapses around them. In the past, nobody
fretted that `looting' might be too simplistic to describe what was going on
in the Watts and Newark riots or after the fall of Baghdad. But last week,
the word suddenly became problematic. Making off with flat-screen TVs was one
thing, but was `looting' the right word for taking diapers and bottled water
from a convenience store?

Some people hue to an uncompromising moral absolutism. When the White House
press secretary, Scott McClellan, was asked about people taking necessities in
his press briefing last week, he defended the president's zero-tolerance
policy on looting. `Food and water were being sent to the afflicted areas,'
he said. `Looting was not the way to obtain them.'

But in the light of the news reports, even the administration's partisans were
willing to embrace situational ethics. `Of course, the looters should be
shot,' said The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan. But by looters, she meant
the people who were taking what they wanted and not simply what they needed.
That was pretty much where most people were drawing the moral line as they
waded into unforeseen semantic subtleties. You're within your rights to walk
out of a supermarket with a loaf of Wonder Bread and a jar of Skippy, but woe
betide you if your bag turned out to contain Carr's Water Crackers and a tin
of foie gras.

Then, too, looting seemed to have racial implications as if it still bore the
traces of its origin in the British raj. A number of bloggers pointed to two
press agency photographs that were posted on Yahoo! News. One showed a young
black man carrying some food through chest-deep water with a caption that
described him as looting. Another showed a fair-skinned couple in identical
circumstances and described them as finding food at a local grocery store.
Some people tried to offer reasons for that difference in language, but they
couldn't allay the suspicion that the words were being used selectively.

Some media tried to simplify the problem by using `looting' across the board.
The New York Times ran a story about how the remaining inhabitants of the
unflooded French Quarter were making a grim party of the crisis, appropriating
food and water from local stores. `Don't call it looting, please,' one
resident was quoted as saying, but that's exactly what The Times did, probably
to forestall the impression that they were giving white foragers a pass.

Others decided to bail out on the L-word entirely. The editor of a Wisconsin
newspaper instructed his news desk to replace `looting' with `taking' in the
captions of pictures. As he put it, `I can't know whether somebody taking
battery-powered tools from a ruined hardware store is looting or trying to
find something he can use to get Grandma out of the attic.'

True, words like `taking,' `finding' and `making off' had a makeshift feel.
But in the circumstances, makeshift didn't seem out of place. After a
thousand years of social inequality in natural disasters, the English language
still doesn't have a word for somebody who steals a loaf of bread to feed his

A similar problem came up in describing those displaced by the floods.
`Evacuees' brings to mind people who are moved out of town for a week until a
chemical cloud blows away, not a long-term dislocation. And there was the
opposite problem with `diaspora,' which The New York Times used in one
headline. It makes it sound as if these people may never return. Technically
speaking, `internally displaced persons' is the most accurate term, but nobody
wants to sound like a federal bureaucrat right now.

Those difficulties led a lot of broadcasters and journalists to describe the
displaced people as refugees. As it happens, that's another borrowed word
from the French name for the Huguenots who went to England when their
religious freedom was withdrawn in 1685. There is some precedent for using
`refugee' in situations like this one. Woody Guthrie used it for the victims
of the Dust Bowl when a combination of natural disaster and government
inaction led to another massive displacement of poor people in America.

But to most Americans, `refugee' brings to mind foreigners who were forced to
seek asylum here because of war or persecution. A number of black leaders
objected to those implications. And on Tuesday, President Bush agreed with
them. `The people we're talking about are not refugees,' he said, `they are
Americans.' Some people defended `refugee' as meaning simply somebody who
seeks refuge, but that doesn't seem right. Ducking into a ski hut to wait out
a blizzard doesn't make me a refugee. And at a time like this, it's hard to
defend a term that some victims of the disaster are likely to be offended by.

But like the question of what to use in place of `looting,' there's no easy
answer here, and maybe that's as it should be. If you weren't struggling to
find the right language to describe what you were seeing last week, you
probably weren't paying close enough attention.

DAVIES: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University, and author of
"Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Confrontational Times."

Coming up, a discussion of changes in disaster relief under the Bush
administration. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Dick Polman discusses the federal response to
Hurricane Katrina

The government response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster has been widely
condemned as slow and inadequate. And at the center of the criticism is FEMA,
the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The disaster has raised questions
about the role and responsibility of government at the federal, state and
local levels and about the Bush administration's goals: cutting taxes and
reducing the size of government.

I spoke this morning to Dick Polman, political analyst at the Philadelphia
Inquirer, who wrote this week about how FEMA has changed under the Bush

Well, Dick Polman, welcome to FRESH AIR. FEMA, the Federal Emergency
Management Agency, has been at the center of a firestorm of criticism for its
response and perhaps its failure to plan for Hurricane Katrina and the flood.
This agency has undergone enormous change under the Bush administration:
funding cuts and diminution of its status within the federal government. What
drove those changes under the Bush administration?

Mr. DICK POLMAN (Political Analyst, Philadelphia Inquirer): Well, I think, as
I recall from covering politics really during the 1990s as well, conservative
activists and theorists have looked at FEMA as sort of one of those agencies
that needed to be downsized as part of what they thought was the need to
diminish the size of the federal government and the responsibilities of the
federal government, this notion that things like that should be planned
primarily at the state and local level.

So FEMA's sort of been in the crosshairs for a long time. And when the Bush
administration took over in 2001, it was readily apparent very quickly that
they were going to target FEMA, and there was testimony to that effect by Joe
Alba, the new FEMA director, telling Congress in the spring of 2001 that FEMA
was, in his words, an oversized entitlement program. And that was sort of the
first shot, and I think they've sort of proceeded from that point forward to
diminish FEMA, to cut its budget and to sort of curtail its independence that
it formerly had, during the Clinton administration in particular as a
Cabinet-level agency.

DAVIES: All right. Let's look at some of the changes that FEMA has undergone
under the Bush administration. It is no longer a Cabinet-level agency. Where
does it fit in the federal bureaucracy, and why the change?

Mr. POLMAN: Yeah. Well, now it's part of the Department of Homeland
Security. And part of the problem with that, as a number of studies warned
back in 2002, when everything was being refigured, The Brookings Institution,
for example, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, did a whole study on
this back then and concluded that FEMA would become just basically, you know,
a stepchild lost within the much larger bureaucracy that was actually much
more devoted to combating or planning for terrorism than for natural
disasters, so that, you know, FEMA's role was going to be diminished, its
independence, it ability to respond quickly was going to be diminished, but
also that its whole mission was considered sort of a second or third priority

DAVIES: Is there evidence in the response to Hurricane Katrina that FEMA's
subservient--that it's role as a subordinate agency to Homeland Security
slowed down the response, got in the way?

Mr. POLMAN: Well, you know, it's--on one level, that's going to have to be
sorted out in the inevitable investigations that are to come in terms of who
did what when. But it's certainly true--I mean, it's indisputably true that
its initial response in certain respects was slow, because we have the record
to show that just by following the actions or lack of actions from the current
director of FEMA, Michael Brown, who succeeded Joe Alba in early 2003, an old
college friend of Alba's who, Mr. Brown, had no previous natural disaster
management experience at all, and got the job after really spending 11 years
working for, I believe it was called, the International Arabian Horse
Association as an attorney.

And we know now, for example, that he waited five hours after Katrina hit
landfall before he mobilized FEMA staffers to come to Louisiana. And
actually, the order was that he gave them two days to get there. That was
number one. Number two, some of his statements have been called into
question. He made a remark early on that he had had no indication that this
was going to be anything other than, as he put it, "a typical," quote,
unquote, or "a standard," quote, unquote, hurricane. He said this
notwithstanding the fact that the director of the National Hurricane Center,
Max Mayfield, had actually briefed him by, like, a sort of, I guess,
teleconference call prior, saying that this was going to be much more
devastating than anyone had ever seen before. And Mayfield came out and
actually said that after Brown made his statement that he had no indication of
anything unusual.

So, you know, there are some serious things that have to be addressed here and
have to be studied, particularly because Brown, himself, very interesting,
actually, had made a statement to a Senate subcommittee last March, a
testimony, in where he said--and this is a quote which I have in front of me
here. He said, "Our nation is prepared as never before to deal quickly and
capably with the consequences of disasters and other domestic incidences,"
and--end quote. And so if you take them at their own word as a point of
departure here, there's certainly a lot that needs to be scrutinized.

DAVIES: Were there changes in funding for FEMA, the kind of grants it could
give for state and local governments to plan?

Mr. POLMAN: Yes, what happened--and I don't have the actual figures. I know
they are certainly available. But what's happened over the last few years was
that actually a lot of FEMA's work was essentially privatized, that they could
no longer just give out money to localities who were looking to do disaster
planning, you know, prevention planning. They had to essentially compete with
private contractors who potentially could offer certain services for less
money. And I think that is one of the things that has hurt--critics say,
anyway, has hurt their effectiveness.

More to your point, actually, is that FEMA had a program during the 1990s
called Project Impact, and its whole purpose was to help localities plan, do
prevention planning, what I guess they call disaster mitigation planning, the
word `mitigation' meaning, `Let's get out ahead of the curve here and gird
ourselves for disaster before it strikes.' And under Project Impact, there
was a lot of money available. I mean, not a lot, but, you know, certainly
enough to satisfy the hundreds of communities which basically lined up for
that program. And that was actually one of the first things, a specific
program, that was targeted in 2001 by the Bush administration for
elimination. And the Republican Congress agreed to that proposal and
eliminated it.

DAVIES: There's, of course, been enormous criticism of Michael Brown, the
current head of FEMA, and his managerial experience, having been managing this
Arabian Horse Association. He was, of course, general counsel to FEMA for
some time, so he did have a little bit of experience there. Is there any
evidence that, under the Bush administration, FEMA's leadership has been less
professional and more political?

Mr. POLMAN: There's been much more concern among longtime FEMA veterans about
the quality of the staff at FEMA since the Bush administration took over.
There's one FEMA veteran. His name is--this is his name: Pleasant Mann, last
name M-A-N-N, who wrote members of Congress in June of 2004, and he said,
quote, "Our professional staff are being systematically replaced by
politically connected novices and contractors," end quote. And that is
basically a concern that is shared by others there, that FEMA was a place
where you had disaster specialists, and that now, in their mind anyway, it's
been turned into sort of a landing point for political appointees.

DAVIES: You know, in contrast to the September 11th attack, when there was a
lot of national unity, there's been a lot of harsh partisan debate already in
the United States about the Bush administration and the federal government's
performance here. What issues do you think this experience is going to raise
about the role of government in American life?

Mr. POLMAN: Well, I think one of the first principles, I think, of government
is to protect its own people. And as a political analyst was telling me the
other day, he says that one of the only things at this point in the country
that liberals and conservatives, average citizens, agree on is this notion
that the federal government's role, you know, first and foremost, is to
protect its own people as certainly the protector of last resort, if not first
resort. And so I think there's going to be potentially here some thinking
that, `Look, you'--Washington has to play a vital role here, and it can't play
a vital role unless the money is there.

And so what may happen this fall, for example, is the Bush administration
still wants to move on some of its core domestic agenda, which includes
erasing the estate tax and making permanent more income tax cuts. And, you
know, the dialogue on that may change in the wake of this. People or
politicians maybe who were maybe a little bit more reticent in the past may
now say, `Well, is this a good time for the country to take money out of the
federal coffers?'

DAVIES: And, you know, the position of conservatives for many years, which
has had some resonance in the country, that we need--that less government is
better and that less federal government and more state and local control is
better--are we going to see a shift in that balance? Are you seeing
conservatives changing their thinking at all about this?

Mr. POLMAN: Well, I think there's certainly--I mean, it cuts two ways. I
think there's certainly a group of administration defenders who are--you know,
in the last day or so, have some out strong with the argument that Louisiana
state and local officials should shoulder much of the blame for all this, that
they didn't do enough on their level, and that it's unfair to focus everything
on the Bush administration.

But certainly, I think that there are--you know, there are many conservatives
who have specifically faulted the Bush administration for what they see
are--you know, is, at the very least, a slowness to respond, and asking
questions themselves as to, you know, `Why wasn't the military mobilized
earlier?' and questions that really come down to the assumption here that
Washington still needs, in a situation like this, to respond quickly, that
this is not a state and local matter. This is--you know, this is a story with
national ...(unintelligible) resonance and needs to be addressed as such.

DAVIES: You're a national political reporter. I'm wondering how you rate
President Bush's performance in this episode in conveying his own message.

Mr. POLMAN: Well, let's--the way I look at it is I've covered both of his
presidential campaigns and certainly two or three before that. And I can
only--you have to start from the vantage point of what they--what candidates
set as the standard for themselves. And President Bush campaigned for
re-election last fall clearly with the message that, compared to John Kerry,
he was the one who was going to keep Americans safe. He was the one who you
can trust to, you know, protect the homeland in whatever way you may want to
define that. And so if you're looking at it as that being the marker,
clearly, if that's the marker, then he has fallen short. I mean, that's the
standard that he himself has set. And you have to look at it against the
marker that the president himself has set.

DAVIES: Well, Dick Polman, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. POLMAN: Thank you, Dave. I appreciate it.

DAVIES: Dick Polman is political analyst for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan on "The Tender Bar," a memoir about
growing up in a neighborhood saloon. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: J.R. Moehringer's memoir "The Tender Bar"

"The Tender Bar" is a new memoir by LA Times reporter J.R. Moehringer about
his unconventional childhood. He grew up mainly nurtured by men at the
neighborhood bar presided over by his bartender uncle. Book critic Maureen
Corrigan has a review.


Fantasy literature is filled with tales of children being raised by all manner
of unlikely surrogate parents: apes, wolves, witches, dogs. But never before
have I come across a story, let alone a true story, in which a child is raised
by a saloon. Such is the wobbly upbringing that J.R. Moehringer describes in
his new memoir "The Tender Bar." Like the watering hole it memorializes, "The
Tender Bar" packs in poets, femme fatales, cops and con men. Its pages
distill hard truths, wisecracks and heartbreak. But what really gives this
memoir its complex flavor is the fact that it's a tale told by a clear-eyed
teetotaler who, in his memories, is still blind drunk with love.

Moehringer grew up in the 1970s and '80s, mostly in Manhasset, Long Island, a
bedroom community of New York City that was the inspiration for the tony town
of East Egg in "The Great Gatsby." For a time, it was also the home of a
legendary pub called Dickens. Dickens, for the young Moehringer, seemed to be
the sanctum sanctorum, a sacred place presided over by his bartender uncle
Charlie, where only men initiated into the rites of holding their beer and
eloquently loosening their tongues could congregate. And as a child,
Moehringer yearned to be around men.

His father, a disc jockey, abandoned the family soon after Moehringer was
born. Growing up, Moehringer used to tune into his father's voice on the
radio and talk back, pretending they were having father-son conversations
together about school and baseball. Moehringer and his mother lived with his
grandparents, an aunt, an uncle and six cousins in the grandparents'
tumbledown Cape Cod, a veritable flophouse with one working toilet and
furniture held together with duct tape. Moehringer's grandfather, a witty
misanthrope, dubbed his extended family `the huddled masses yearning to
breathe rent-free.'

No wonder Moehringer, as a kid, inevitably washed up at Dickens, where his
uncle and a motley crew of booze hounds taught him the manly essentials: how
to float in Long Island Sound, how to talk like a longshoreman and how to woo
a woman. Most of the men at the pub, Moehringer recalls, conceived of romance
in warlike terms. As one Vietnam vet and gin mill philosopher opined, `Broads
are like Reds: inscrutable, ruthless, committed to forcible redistribution of
your money.'

Moehringer, who grew up to become a reporter, began jotting down notes of
barroom bons mots like these while he was still a teen, hence their ring of
authenticity. But "The Tender Bar" is so much more than a cute compendium of
things men say when they're blotto. It's a fierce and funny coming-of-age
story about ambition and yearning and necessary betrayals.

Moehringer's mom pushed him to make something of himself, to go to Yale and
eventually get hired and fired by The New York Times. Moehringer exquisitely
describes every wince-making step of his class climb. Reporting back to Uncle
Charlie and the men at the bar about his discomfort at Yale, Moehringer moaned
that one of his roommates had already published his first book. And another,
who'd spent the summer interning at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center,
had had a form of leukemia named after him. The guys around the bar
sympathized with Moehringer's insecurities, and then ordered another round.
Ditto years later when Moehringer bellied up to the bar to complain about
feeling like a loser at The Times.

What he eventually realized about the cost of the consolation he'd been
receiving from his mostly working stiff mentors at Dickens strikes me as one
of the smartest observation anyone has made about the complications of class
identity and loyalty. `The more I moaned about The Times,' Moehringer says,
`the more popular I became at the bar. Though proud of me when I succeeded,
the men celebrated me when I failed.'

Dickens, the pub, is no longer in business, so Moehringer doesn't have to
worry about what kind of reception his memoir would have gotten from the men
who, as he says, collectively raised him there. According to Moehringer,
though, they were connoisseurs not only of good liquor, but also of good tales
about the human comedy. So I have to believe they would have hoisted a glass
to this superb literary brew.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan reviewed "The Tender Bar" by J.R. Moehringer.
Maureen teaches at Georgetown University and is the author of a new memoir
called "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading."


DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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