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What the Next President Must Do to Save FEMA


While books like Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and Capitalizing On – Catastrophe (edited by Nandini Gunewardena & Mark Schuller) demonstrate how both Republicans and Neoliberals often capitalize on disasters, if a new administration is to truly be prepared for another catastrophe it is also critical to understand how and why the Federal Emergency Agency (FEMA) has so often failed to respond properly and adequately to our nation’s disasters. In addition to the greed that often follows in the wake of disasters we need also to pay attention to the infrastructural policies and practices that continue to prevent a full and effective response to disasters.

Whoever is elected in November needs to understand that FEMA is in desperate need of reorganization if we are to respond successfully to future catastrophic events, as well as also properly prepare for, and even mitigate for such events; let alone avoid another debacle like the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. In order to understand how FEMA has become an agency ill prepared to carry out its intended mission we need to examine it’s short and brutish history.

Until the Carter administration there was no central agency to provide assistance and relief to communities and disaster victims. Prior to this time, the federal government responded to disasters on a case-by-case basis employing disparate legislation to respond to crises. FEMA was not established until the Carter administration in 1979. In its early days not even FEMA was a truly consolidated bureaucracy, but a patchwork of federal offices. With the creation of the agency there was a promise to take an all-hazards approach in which equal attention given to natural disasters and the threat of enemies. This all-hazards approach has seldom if ever been incorporated. Gradually, FEMA did evolve into a more integrated agency. However, improvements were soon dismantled under the Reagan administration in their revitalization of the a Civil Defense model which focused almost exclusively on a Cold War approach and the notion of nuclear survivability. As a result, the majority of FEMA’s energies and budget revolved around the prospect of nuclear war with lessened attention to natural disasters. The results were disastrous: In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s we faced a series of major disasters beginning with Hurricane Hugo, a category 5 storm that pulverized the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico before coming ashore as a category 4 hurricane in South Carolina. FEMA’s response to Hugo was described by both political parties as,’ too little and too late’. In many areas it was several days before assistance was provided to disaster victims. Internal governmental reports issued by the GAO, Congress, and even FEMA faulted the agency for its failures. The agency’s singular focus on nuclear attacks created huge capability gaps when it came to anticipating and delivering natural disaster relief. FEMA’s abysmal record of response to Hurricane Hugo was, in one sense, a dress rehearsal of FEMA’s future failures in 1992 with Hurricane Andrew and eventually in 2005 with Hurricane Katrina. Indeed, it can be said that some of our nations worst disasters followed as FEMA struggled to get “it” right and Congress occasionally threatened to demolish the agency.

While there were complex reasons for these failures, the author, and other disaster researchers, placed the majority of the blame on the Cold War focus of FEMA’s asymmetrical vision of preparing for an intrusion from without while ignoring the perils and frequency of natural disasters here at home. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of FEMA’s budget as well as programs focused more on a threat from without than on the ubiquity of disasters within. Internal government reports following Hurricane Hugo made this same criticism.

Under the Clinton administration FEMA gradually improved as it listened to its critics from within and from without as well as from the leadership provided by its new director, James Lee Witt. It abandoned its skewed focus on doomsday scenarios like all out nuclear war and built better relations with state and local authorities as it recognized its need to pay equal attention to the ever-present more recurrent threat of disasters. The agency had considerably better success responding to the 1993 upper Mississippi River floods than its efforts in the past. Under Witt’s direction FEMA also had a quick response to the housing shortage caused by the 1994 Loma Prieta earthquake by utilizing House and Urban Development (HUD) housing. A housing solution that the Bush administration was loathe to initiate following Katrina because such a move might undermine their plans to abolish HUD. FEMA, under Clinton, expanded its role and placed emphasis on preventing disasters and on effective mitigation measures. Instead of waiting it pre-positioned supplies in disaster prone region ahead of time (something that has still not been as effective during the present administration even in its recent responses to Hurricanes Gustav and Ike).

Most importantly, FEMA, under Witt’s leadership and with research based input from non-agency disaster expects, created Project Impact a dynamic program to assist local communities in preventing and responding to disaster and providing them with effective disaster mitigation strategies. The program virtually prepared communities to become more resilient in the face of disaster threats. For the first time in its history, FEMA received its highest praise from both parties and many of its critics. While it was still far from perfect the agency appeared to be headed in the right direction.

The success of Project Impact was demonstrated in 2001 during the Seattle Earthquake. The day after the quake struck the city, the mayor, on national television attributed the city’s small loss of life and damage to its urban infrastructure to Project Impact. Ironically, the same day, the Bush administration effectively killed the project claiming the project was “ineffective” and that by abolishing the program they were saving the taxpayers $200 million. Not long after that the cold war mentality and the fear of terrorism prevailed once again and changed the course of FEMA. Soon many of the top FEMA officials were either fired or quit. It wasn’t long before the institutional memory of the agency and the many years of its staff’s experience from lessons learned from previous disasters dissipated rapidly. Once FEMA embraced privatization some officials resigned in order to work as consultants to their former employer and earn considerably more than they did as public employees. Along with these changes the Bush administration began rapidly privatizing many of FEMA’s former tasks leading eventually to the scandals that followed Hurricane Katrina. Scandals about the huge profiteering that many large corporations were making on no-bid contracts. According to a report by DHS’s Office of Inspector General over $3 billion was awarded in no-bid contracts, and by their estimates alone at least $ 1 billion was wasted by such practices.

In 2001, in the wake of 911, the Bush administration, following the recommendations of the Hart/ Rudman Commission report and legislation introduced by Lieberman, proposed to incorporate FEMA within the newly proposed Department of Homeland Security (DHS). A number of disaster researchers, including myself, feared that if FEMA were folded into a larger bureaucracy it might become less effective in accomplishing its central mission. A concern shared by many, in and out of government, was that FEMA would become sidetracked by the Bush administration’s obsession with the threat of terrorism. As the Brookings Institution and others argued, a better solution was to enhance and strengthen FEMA and design a mission that would insure a delicate balance of preparing for disasters as well as the threats of our enemies. In another words, it would be better for our nation’s security if FEMA absorbed new programs that could also deal with the threats of terrorism rather than have it thrust into a huge government bureaucracy, in which 22 former federal agencies were consolidated. A move, which could, and did, ultimately thwart its central mission. The risk of FEMA becoming distracted by DHS’s mission seemed certain to diminish its ability to respond to disasters that are, in themselves, a continuing threat to our nation’s security. All this at a time in our nation’s history when the threat and severity of disasters was rapidly increasing. This risk feared by many soon materialized. FEMA’s mission was disrupted by a larger agenda of which it had little control.

Once DHS was established it wasn’t long before disaster preparedness and response was relegated to the back burner even more so than it had under President Reagan. In 2004, federal funds for antiterrorism plans soared from $221 million to $ 3 billion while at the same time FEMA radically cut its disaster grant funding to states and local governments to a mere $180 million, down $90 Million from previous funding levels. The national association of Emergency Management went on record saying that the funding levels for disasters was at the very least several million dollars below what was needed. Some FEMA officials complained of spending too much time and money preparing for terrorism at the risk of ignoring their equally important all hazards agenda of preparing for disasters.

In March 2005, just six months before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast an independent study of FEMA was extremely critical of its new structure within DHS. It argued that FEMA’s policies rendered the agency “incapable of its mission”. The report further argued that FEMA was unable, under its new role in DHS, of obtaining accurate information about disasters and adequately communicating information back and forth from a disaster site. The report also argued that FEMA was incapable of accurately relating such information up and down its complex command chain. A criticism that became a reality once Hurricane Katrina came ashore.

During the catastrophe that followed in August and September 2005, senior FEMA officials in the field complained to me that FEMA had been hobbled by DHS and their ability to implement standard operating procedures that were successful in the past were severely constrained by DHS control over FEMA. Some career FEMA officials also complained that unbeknownst to them DHS had frozen their access to FEMA computers and had prevented them from implementing procedures that they felt could have alleviated some of the harm.

In many ways the Bush administration’s ideological predisposition seems to closely resemble that former President Cleveland who once vetoed emergency funds for drought victims in the southwest. According to President Cleveland the federal government “had no warrant in the Constitution to indulge in benevolent and charitable sentiment.” Under the Bush administration increased emphasis has been placed on individual household responsibility and ill equipped, under funded local authorities taking care of themselves in the event of a disaster. Notions which underscore the administration’s agenda to reduce federal government’s role in providing social services and assistance across the board.

The deleterious impact that disasters can have on our nation’s security is equal to, if not at times, greater than that of terrorism — as Hurricane Katrina amply demonstrated. While it is unlikely that the newly elected president can be convinced to restore FEMA’s autonomy, it is reasonable to propose that the now almost totally eviscerated former agency be empowered to re-focus its attention on the risks of both disasters and terrorism rather than sacrifice one goal for the sake of another.

We need a policy that would require significant increased funding for FEMA’s dual approach and we need to insure that funding earmarked for disasters is not secretly funneled into fighting terrorism as has been the case under the present administration.

The president-elect should appoint a new director of FEMA who is extremely knowledgeable and experienced in disaster relief, mitigation and preparedness rather than yet another political appointee. In keeping with this goal of professionalism, it is imperative that FEMA hire new employees who have real expertise in disaster relief and assistance and restore the intellectual and experiential knowledge base it once possessed.

The ruinous and wasteful practice of privatization and no-bid contracts must be abolished. Taxpayers can ill afford this costly and unprofessional approach. Corporations motivated solely by profit do not have the expertise to provide the kind of relief and assistance disaster that stricken communities and families so desperately require.

Finally, FEMA needs to restore the successful Project Impact, which can once again mitigate against the damages of disasters, protect our nation’s infrastructure and economy and preserve the lives of our citizens.

In short, we need a president who can institute real change and fully understand that our nation’s security, it’s economy and it’s people need to be protected from threats of all kinds and that we have an obligation to assist all those in need regardless of their race or class. Until this happens our nation’s national security and its moral stature will be jeopardized by the narrowness of FEMA’s present mission.

GREGORY V. BUTTON, PhD. Is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He has conducted almost three decades of research on disasters and is a former Congressional Fellow who worked in the United States Senate with the late Senator Paul Wellstone (D) Minn. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Unnatural Disasters: Exxon-Valdez to Hurricane Katrina (Left Coast Press). He can be contacted at Gregory Button





Gregory V. Button is a former faculty member at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and has been researching and writing about environmental health and disasters for over three decades. He is the author of Disaster Culture: Knowledge and Uncertainty in the Wake of Human and Environmental Catastrophe (Left Coast Press).

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