Thursday, September 01, 2005

FEMA Obituary

Even if you're buried under the cascade of tragic news, be sure to read this obituary for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that appeared in the August 30 Washington Post.

It's written by Eric Holdman, the highly respected director of Seattle's Office of Emergency Management. Here's an excerpt:
In the days to come, as the nation and the people along the Gulf Coast work to cope with the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we will be reminded anew, how important it is to have a federal agency capable of dealing with natural catastrophes of this sort. This is an immense human tragedy, one that will work hardship on millions of people. It is beyond the capabilities of state and local government to deal with. It requires a national response.

Which makes it all the more difficult to understand why, at this moment, the country's premier agency for dealing with such events -- FEMA -- is being, in effect, systematically downgraded and all but dismantled by the Department of Homeland Security.

* * *
What follows is an obituary for what was once considered the preeminent example of a federal agency doing good for the American public in times of trouble, such as the present.
Holdman gives a thumbnail history of the downs, and ups, and downs again, of FEMA. It's a history that Floridians -- and especially Pensacola area residents -- know from personal experience.

After Hurricane Andrew, the agency was widely reviled for its disastrous performance in south Florida. As a University of Colorado study puts it, "What became evident in the first weeks after Andrew was that the FEMA and the overall federal response as well as the Florida response were uncoordinated, confused, and often inadequate." Many believe this materially contributed to the defeat of then-President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1992.

By 1995, when Hurricanes Erin and Opal hit Pensacola Beach, newly elected President Bill Clinton had totally reformed the agency. As Holdman writes:
Clinton appointed James Lee Witt to be director of the agency. Witt was the first professional emergency manager to run the agency. Showing a serious regard for the cost of natural disasters in both economic impact and lives lost or disrupted, Witt reoriented FEMA from civil defense preparations to a focus on natural disaster preparedness and disaster mitigation. In an effort to reduce the repeated loss of property and lives every time a disaster struck, he started a disaster mitigation effort called "Project Impact." FEMA was elevated to a Cabinet-level agency, in recognition of its important responsibilities coordinating efforts across departmental and governmental lines.
Pensacola Beach businesses and homeowners were among the first beneficiaries of the reorganized agency, as those who were here at the time will remember. Emergency cash, food, temporary living, and other assistance were delivered to storm victims within days. FEMA quickly made possible the replacement of uninsurable residential structures, principally replacement fences and out-bulding sheds. If memory serves, FEMA also helped to supply emergency snow fencing through the SRIA to beach-front residents, in an effort to quickly rebuild damaged dunes. And, the agency later funded small and large experimental mitigation projects on the beach including the Sigler's famous Dome Home.

FEMA has seriously deteriorated in the years since. Holdman dates the decline of the agency to the departure of Witt in 2001. No links are needed to substantiate the widepread chaos and fraud FEMA contributed to last year after four hurricanes hit Florida in two months. Locally, everyone has at least one anecdote of a friend, a relative, or a neighbor who received a FEMA payment they didn't deserve (and didn't ask for) or who was repeatedly denied help they desperately needed and qualified for. The FEMA-coordinated S.B.A. "loan" program was unmasked as a cruel joke. That was no funnier than the on-again-off-again FEMA promises to help local governments remove trash heaps from the streets.

Just a month ago, FEMA again crossed up local residents when it announced before Hurricane Dennis that it would subsidize the purchase of generators before the storm, and afterwards said it wouldn't... and then changed its policy again, all within three weeks.

It's more difficult to quantify, but anyone who has had personal experience dealing with FEMA agents in 1995-96 and again in 2004-05 is likely to agree that there also has been a manifest decline in the basic competence of FEMA agents. Sure, a greater number of them had to be hired last year. And, yes, for what seems to be ideological reasons, quite a number of FEMA functions have been "out-sourced" and "privatized" to private profit-making corporations with little or no hurricane experience.

Regardless, FEMA must remain ultimately accountable for poor management, recruitment, training, and performance. The agency worked wondrously well for Pensacola Beach in '95. It doesn't today. Something is broken -- and it needs to be fixed.

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