Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Michael Heckuva Job Brown Knows Disaster

It's a disaster in the making.

"Since the terrible events of September 11, 2001, and with the increasing and widespread concern for pandemic influenza worldwide, Coloradans have been deluged with constant warnings about their ongoing safety," reads the What If? Colorado program overview page prepared by the Office of Emergency Preparedness and Response of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. "As a result, citizens need real solutions to their questions concerning influenza prevention and emergency solutions."

And what better way to offer those real solutions than to create a fake reality show?

September 11, 2007 — the sixth anniversary of the crisis that shook America to its core — just happened to be the second-to-last day that Coloradans could vote for their favorite What If? Colorado contestant, 31 semi-finalists culled from 123 "adventurous Coloradans" who'd all submitted one-minute videos describing the five things they couldn't live without in case of emergency. (Item number one for the blond babe who introduces the contest at a blow dryer.) On September 20, the nine top vote-getters will move into the What If? Colorado House — actually the Gregory Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in the Curtis Park neighborhood — where they will stay for three days, competing in seven disaster-related challenges for the chance to win $2,500 and be named this state's ultimate survivor.

I already know who's earned that title: Michael Brown. The day after September 11, 2005, Brown tendered his resignation as head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, not long after President George Bush said he was doing a "heckuva job" responding to the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina. "Heckuva job" Brownie, who'd moved up to the top slot at FEMA from a legal job there, which he'd taken after being thrown from his position as counsel to a Colorado-based Arabian horse outfit. When Brown finally left Washington, D.C. — FEMA kept him as a consultant for some time, which made it easier when he had to go testify before Congress — he moved to Boulder, where he set up a disaster-consulting business.

Truly, Brown knows a disaster when he sees it — and Colorado's ludicrous "What If?" campaign definitely qualifies.

"We're talking about this on 9/11," Brown said as we talked about it on Tuesday, after I'd clued him in to the campaign and he'd spent some time on the What If? website, watching a survivalist's audition tape and another from a girl who would bring her lip gloss. "I find that ironic. I think people are kind of starting to get it, and now they do this? It's kind of sad."

And he knows sad, too, since the tragic stories continue to mount in New Orleans, where schools are not repaired, homes are still abandoned. And the feds can't blame Brownie for their post-Katrina failures.

Now the feds are throwing good money after bad, with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sending money to the states to use for pandemic influenza preparation. And Colorado, which on Tuesday finally got a new head of the Division of Emergency Management to replace the badly vetted fellow who never actually made it to the Capitol, decided to pour its share into the six-month What If? campaign, complete with fake disaster scenarios, a mass vaccination exercise in November and a YouTube contest.

"I agree with the concept of trying to get the culture to think about some of these things," Brown said. "If they want to reach the youth, go ahead and put something on YouTube, but have it professionally produced. Any communications expert would tell you that this is sending mixed messages."

The professional video that kicked off the YouTube contest includes a clip of a 48-year-old Denver man "originally from a city known as New Orleans, and we ran into a little wind disturbance down there known as Hurricane Katrina," he tells the audience. So he has a pretty good idea what five things you can't live without in case of an emergency: "cash, cash, cash, wheels and, of course, information."

But when the What If? crew trimmed the original entrants down to the semi-finalists, he didn't make the cut.

Brown recognizes that information is key, too. "Look, I go back to my biggest mistake," he said, when I asked him to do exactly that at the one-year anniversary of Katrina ("The Eye of the Storm," August 31, 2006). "At some point, I should have put down those stupid talking points and said, 'Look, I've asked for buses and they're not here yet. The Army is two days away.'" But he was chained to a desk in Baton Rouge, chained to orders coming down from Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, and Brown didn't put down the talking points until it was too late to stem the rising tide of misinformation.

When you've climbed out on your roof to avoid the floodwaters that have filled your house, it's hard to get on to the Internet. Or watch a lot of movies on TV, which is what another Colorado contestant plans to do in a time of crisis.

"We're using a new media to deliver important health messages," explains Katherine Davis of GroundFloor Media, which is pushing the What If? project for the state. "It's an interactive way to get the public involved, people of all ages."

She won't reveal what seven disasters the finalists will face while they're living in the What If? Colorado house — say, pretend you're stuck at DIA in a snowstorm for three days, or pretend that the city hasn't plowed the streets and you can't leave your house, or you discover that the B&B is actually suffering from a critical shortage of marmalade for the morning muffins — nor how the final judging will be done. But a production company will be there to film the action, as will several television crews from stations across the state, and so Coloradans will be able to follow the fake crisis on the web for months to come. Without any color commentary from Brownie, unfortunately.

And you thought The Real World: Denver was the biggest TV disaster to hit this town.

As if!

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun