August 31, 2005

Can FEMA Handle this Disaster?

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has gone through several iterations. During the Reagan years, it didn't worry much about natural disaster preferring to focus on the national security threat. Luckily for Reagan, there were very few natural disasters that asked for something the agency couldn't handle. Then during Bush I, enough disasters hit the country to make people realize that the agency was poorly prepared to manage natural disasters. Under Clinton, the agency was reengineered to focus on helping people facing natural disasters and the agency won awards for its ability to provide excellent service to the public. Today, FEMA has been absorbed into the Homeland Security borg. So is it prepared to handle the disaster in New Orleans today? Eric Holdeman, director of the King County Emergency Management in Washington says no.

Indeed, the advent of the Bush administration in January 2001 signaled the beginning of the end for FEMA. The newly appointed leadership of the agency showed little interest in its work or in the missions pursued by the departed Witt. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Soon FEMA was being absorbed into the "homeland security borg."

This year it was announced that FEMA is to "officially" lose the disaster preparedness function that it has had since its creation. The move is a death blow to an agency that was already on life support. In fact, FEMA employees have been directed not to become involved in disaster preparedness functions, since a new directorate (yet to be established) will have that mission.

FEMA will be survived by state and local emergency management offices, which are confused about how they fit into the national picture. That's because the focus of the national effort remains terrorism, even if the Department of Homeland Security still talks about "all-hazards preparedness." Those of us in the business of dealing with emergencies find ourselves with no national leadership and no mentors. We are being forced to fend for ourselves, making do with the "homeland security" mission. Our "all-hazards" approaches have been decimated by the administration's preoccupation with terrorism.

To be sure, America may well be hit by another major terrorist attack, and we must be prepared for such an event. But I can guarantee you that hurricanes like the one that ripped into Louisiana and Mississippi yesterday, along with tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, windstorms, mudslides, power outages, fires and perhaps a pandemic flu will have to be dealt with on a weekly and daily basis throughout this country. They are coming for sure, sooner or later, even as we are, to an unconscionable degree, weakening our ability to respond to them.

This is the second time FEMA has been hijacked by the Republicans to focus almost exclusively on everything but natural disasters. During the Reagan era, Oliver North and James Secord laundered black budget dollars to prepare for a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. By the time of Hurricane Andrew in 1992, an investigation into the funding for dealing with natural disasters showed that 90% of the budget for FEMA was for "black" or classified operations, including building deep underground bunkers and designing goverment continuity programs. (Remember Cheney and Rumsfeld had been part of this program during the 1980s? They are clearly prepared for taking over at a moments notice if Bush is unable to give orders.)

President Clinton appointed James Lee Witt as his head of FEMA and the agency focused on providing domestic support for disasters, including natural disasters. Witt was considered to be a remarkably apt administrator for this agency and his success in reinventing the agency is still studied.

Bush's head of FEMA is Michael D Brown and GovExec says Bush owes his 2004 win to Brown's attention to the impact of the hurricanes in Florida in 2004. But according to one of the commentors to Josh Marshall's TPM Cafe discussion about Hurricane Katrina, the exceptional service of 2004 has not been matched in 2005.

To say we have hurricane fatigue here is an understatement. We were hit directly by Ivan in September and Dennis in July. I still have a FEMA blue tarp on my roof from the Dennis damage. But the interesting part is how responsive FEMA was last September, before the election, compared to now. When Dennis struck here in July, we actually has more damage than Ivan, but applications to FEMA have gotten no response what so ever compared to September, when I filed by phone on a Tuesday and had a FEMA representative at my house by Friday. And FEMA passed out huge amounts of money in Dade & Broward counties last September when they received NO damage. Related to the large number of voters there?? Sen. Bill Nelson has tried to get hearing on this to no avail.

Brown says that Bush's budget has "coffers nicely filled by President Bush and Congress" to cover the disaster in New Orleans. Of course, when we see stories like this, having a healthy scepticism on how much is in the coffers for "human needs" is understandable. After all, even in 2001, experts considered the vulnerability of New Orleans to catastrophic flooding as one of the top three potential disasters of this century. But obviously, under Bush's priorities, tax cuts for the rich are much more important than programs to prepare for foreseeable disasters that affect ordinary Americans.

Posted by Mary at August 31, 2005 12:58 AM | US Politics | TrackBack(4) | Technorati links |