Thursday, September 01, 2005

The waxing and waning of FEMA

Kevin Drum points to a few articles that seem timely. Read his post, read the linked articles (D. Franklin in the Washington Monthly, July/August 1995; E. Holdeman in WaPo, August 30 2005), and then read the comment from someone who claims to have worked with FEMA in the past:

I used to work with FEMA, and what is reported is absolutely true. Clinton built up FEMA by expanding the ability to plan for disasters, react to coming disaster, mitigate future disasters and build the preparedness infrastructure at both the Federal, State and Local level.

Bush destroyed it. He appointed a hack who was universally detested to run the agency. Then it got swallowed into Homeland Security and all the plans got garbled. And almost all of the most experienced and best managers left. Last year, FEMA rated DEAD LAST among Federal agencies in terms of employee job satisfaction.

The Mitigation program - ie the program to try and reduce the risk and impact of future disasters was scrapped entirely. The Directorate shut down, Project Impact cancelled.

The Preparedness program was moved out of FEMA.

And of course the ability to handle the onrushing storm was crippled because all the crafty vets were gone. All those guys who had been trained in that little thing: If its raining in New Orleans, for god's sake don't let the dykes burst! - were gone.

We see the evidence already.

Exhibit A - they diverted the helicopters who were doing the absolutely essential thing. And clearly there was no effort to ensure that there was a substitute.

Exhibit B - There was completely inadequate planning for law and order. Remember New Orleans has about the highest crime rate in the country - but despite that there's no evidence that there was a major effort to set some controls. Would have been tough anyway with the National Guard in Iraq. But something could have been done.

Exhibit C - Presidential interest. In every major disaster event that was happening (ie while the hurricane was coming), the President and/or VP personally intervened to find out what was going on and to check if there was anything they could do to help. And there almost always was a need for them to push along some other Federal Agencies. Clearly there was none of that this time.

This is a massive failure. A bureaucracy was crippled and failed because of top level negligence. It did NOT have to be this bad.

The comparisons to the planning failures in 9-11 and Iraq are obvious.

UPDATE 4 Sept.: Susan B. Glasser and Josh White at WaPo have more. Why are none of the other major papers on top of this? There were many political failures behind the unnecessary magnitude of this disaster, but the gutting of FEMA seems to me the most dramatic and most avoidable. It takes a lot of political will to raise taxes and sink money into big construction projects, like rebuilding levees, but FEMA was already there, it was already prepared and in top operational condition when the Bush administration moved in, and it was simply gutted.

Meanwhile the Times, in typical fashion, picks Elisabeth Bumiller and Adam Nagourney, the nation's reigning queen and king of shallow horse-race political reportage, to write a piece on the White House spin operation. As one would expect, the piece is short on dissection of substantive policy failures, and long on Kremlinological analysis of the administration's public relations situation. Yet another reminder of why I suspended my subscription to the Sunday Times.

Also, Kevin Drum has an easily-digestible chronology of the decline of FEMA under Bush. Via Talking Points Memo, The Independent Weekly, Sept. 2004 and Knight-Ridder, Aug. 31 also report on FEMA.

Lastly, I'm reading some conservative comment to the effect that somehow it's too soon to judge whether FEMA's response has been adequate, and we should all wait a week before passing judgment. Erm, right. Here's what FEMA used to be like (from the Washington Monthly article linked above):

Consider the Oklahoma City bombing. Tom Feuerborne, director of Oklahoma's Civil Emergency Management Department, can cite the events of April 19, 1995 almost down to the minute. It was 9:02 a.m. when a truck bomb ripped through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in downtown Oklahoma City. At 9:30, Feuerborne placed a phone call to FEMA's headquarters in Washington. At 2:05, FEMA's advance team arrived, complete with damage assessors and members of Witt's staff. Six hours later, at 8:10 that evening, Witt himself arrived to be briefed on the situation. By 2:30 a.m. April 20, the first of FEMA's search and rescue teams had arrived to supplement the efforts of the Oklahoma City fire department. Says Feuerborne, "My office is very happy with the quick response of FEMA."

Ellen Gordon, administrator of Iowa's Emergency Management Division, has a similarly uncanny memory when it comes to FEMA's response to the Midwestern floods of 1993. Shortly after midnight on Sunday, July 11, she received a call from L.D. McMullen, the general manager of the Des Moines Water Works. Their operation was at the point of collapse, he said. The 250,000 citizens of Des Moines would soon lose all of their water.

One year earlier, Gordon would have mailed federal relief request forms to Washington, where, as Puerto Rico's Governor Hernandez-Colon discovered, they may have received a less-than-speedy response. But all Gordon had to do was place a phone call to the FEMA disaster field office located in Davenport. Early Sunday morning, FEMA officials arrived in Des Moines, and, by 11:30 a.m., they had determined a plan of action. By that evening, 29 water distribution centers had been established. The next morning, the first of 30 self-contained water purification machines arrived. For the next two-and-a-half weeks, the Des Moines Water Works was inoperable, but the city had all the water it needed. "Nothing sticks out in our minds that we had to haggle over or justify," says Gordon. "Whenever we asked for assistance it was there."

FEMA's response time used to be measured in hours. Katrina's scale may be unprecedented, and so one might excuse a slightly greater delay in coming to terms with it, but nothing I've seen or read indicates even a hint of the responsiveness and competence described in this article. And primary responsibility lies squarely with the executive branch --- Congress budgeted plenty of money for the Dept. of Homeland Security (which is now FEMA's parent department), and it was the Bush administration's responsibility to make sure that DHS used its funds properly.

UPDATE 2 (4 Sept.): The litany of failure never stops. BoingBoing quotes from a Chicago Tribune article (emphasis added):

While federal and state emergency planners scramble to get more military relief to Gulf Coast communities stricken by Hurricane Katrina, a massive naval goodwill station has been cruising offshore, underused and waiting for a larger role in the effort.

The USS Bataan, a 844-foot ship designed to dispatch Marines in amphibious assaults, has helicopters, doctors, hospital beds, food and water. It also can make its own water, up to 100,000 gallons a day. And it just happened to be in the Gulf of Mexico when Katrina came roaring ashore.The Bataan rode out the storm and then followed it toward shore, awaiting relief orders. Helicopter pilots flying from its deck were some of the first to begin plucking stranded New Orleans residents.

But now the Bataan's hospital facilities, including six operating rooms and beds for 600 patients, are empty. A good share of its 1,200 sailors could also go ashore to help with the relief effort, but they haven't been asked. The Bataan has been in the stricken region the longest of any military unit, but federal authorities have yet to fully utilize the ship. (...) The role in the relief effort of the sizable medical staff on board the Bataan was not up to the Navy, but to FEMA officials directing the overall effort.


  1. You're reading Kevin Drum again? :)

  2. Actually, not as such. I just followed a link, from TPMCafe I think. I still find Drum alternately boring and annoying most of the time.