The disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is a serious test for the government regorganization that came about as a result of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Among the many agencies to have been consolidated under the vast DHS umbrella is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
In this context, it is very interesting to go back to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, one of the largest previous disasters in US history, and one that led to widespread criticism of FEMA.
Specifically, I am going to pick up the story with some congressional hearings that took place after President Clinton’s inauguration in January, 1993. (My research for this post is primarily via Lexis Nexis and thus many of my references will not include links; any emphasis in these quotes is mine, and not in the original.)
On January 28, 1993, the Washington Post reported:
Urging a sharp departure from federal disaster response policy, several specialists yesterday told a Senate subcommittee that the military should be given a much greater role in the government’s handling of natural catastrophes, taking over some functions of the beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Moreover, a Cabinet member or senior White House official should be responsible for coordinating disaster response to provide accountability at a high political level, experts told the Appropriations subcommittee that funds FEMA.
Further detail on the recommendations of some witnesses at the hearings regarding a military role:
“The military is the only game in town to come in quickly and effectively after a mega-disaster like Andrew,” declared J. Dexter Peach, assistant comptroller general of the General Accounting Office [...] He suggested that the Army, which did not arrive in force in Florida until nearly a week after Andrew, could be brought in immediately after a disaster, or even pre-positioned in predictable disasters such as hurricanes.
In late February, 1993, there were several reports that emphasized FEMA’s severe problems of accountability, as well as its relationship with military missions. Regarding a secret program set up with the help of Oliver North, and that only 20 members of Congress were aware of, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted on February 22, 1993:
…the program has grown to “Doctor Strangelove” scale:
A fleet of 300 vehicles in five mobile units at sites from Washington state to Massachusetts.
Sensitive radio, telephone and satellite gear – much of it classified – stored in custom-built trucks resembling mobile bank vaults.
Budgets totaling $ 1.3 billion over the last 10 years appearing annually as a single line – “submitted under a separate package.”
Despite the obvious communications power, no complete mobile unit has ever been used in a natural disaster – although parts of three units were used after Hurricane Andrew. Most FEMA employees assigned to deal with Andrew didn’t even know about the agency’s full strength because of what congressional investigators dubbed “a black curtain” of secrecy.
For example, the city manager of Homestead, Fla., which was ravaged by the hurricane, pleaded for 100 hand-held radios because the town had only one working telephone. Instead, FEMA sent high-tech vans, capable of sending encrypted, multi-frequency radio messages to military aircraft halfway around the world.
By July 23, 1993, the Washington Post reported on an official report by the General Accounting Office:
“To improve the federal response, the nation needs presidential involvement and leadership both before and after a catastrophic disaster strikes,” the GAO said. Appointment of a key White House official as a disaster coordinator would institutionalize presidential involvement and replace the kind of “ad hoc” response that was evident during Andrew and other disasters, the report said.
So, here we have some recommendations from the GAO in 1993. What did Congress and President Clinton do with them? Nothing in terms of legislation that I found, nothing about a possible greater coordination with and readiness of the military for such a disaster, and only some administrative reorganization.
On October 19, 1993, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted that the Clinton Administration had chosen FEMA as one of the targets of VP Al Gore’s “reinventing government” program designed to streamline government agencies. Meanwile, at least two bills had been filed in Congress aimed at more fundamental restrcturing, but as far as I can tell, they went nowhere.
In 1993 and 1994, FEMA had two other major natural disasters to respond to: Flooding in several midwestern states, and the Northridge, California, earthquake. The thrust of several stories was that FEMA acquitted itself well in these cases. However, as terrible as these disasters were, they are of a lesser logistical scale than responses to massive hurricanes like Andrew, let alone Katrina.
Now, move ahead to today. The LA Times today refers to “a diminished FEMA“:
Previously a Cabinet-level agency that reported directly to the president, FEMA was folded into the vast bureaucracy of the newly created Department of Homeland Security. Both resources and energy devoted to preparing for natural disasters were reduced, giving way to the bureaucratic demands of organizing the home-front war on terrorism.
And, of course, there has been much play about the warnings in 2001 (and I am sure there were others earlier) that New Orleans was literally a disaster waiting to happen, yet budgets for improvements to the levee system were cut by Congress. Today’s Times story again:
In 2005, for instance, the Army Corps of Engineers requested $78 million for the flood project. The president cut the request to $30 million and in the end, Congress approved $36.5 million.
The upgrade of terrorism as a priority in government disaster preparation after 9/11 was obviously necessary, and indeed overdue. But 9/11 did not make major hurricanes and other non-terrorist disasters any less likely to occur than they had been before. Besides, an emergency is an emergency. It really does not matter if it is a storm or bomb that throws you out of your house and leads to the near-total breakdown of civil order and public services in your city. Again, from today’s Times story:
“When Homeland Security came, everything became terrorism,” said Bob Freitag, a 20-year veteran of FEMA who now teaches at the University of Washington. “There’s no balance.”
I have read and heard several times in the last few days that FEMA had been made a “cabinet-level” position, that reported, as today’s LA Times puts it, “directly to the president.” Some stories have placed this “upgrade” in 1992. Such an upgrade would be in line with what the GAO recommended, as quoted above. However, that GAO study is from 1993, not 1992. Moreover, a fairly exhaustive Lexis Nexis search fails to turn up any news reports in 1992 of FEMA’s having been upgraded to cabinet level. And, as late as September 15, 1992, the Christian Science Monitor still referred to FEMA as having been, since its creation under Carter, a “Level II” organization, “just under cabinet status, reporting nominally to the president.”
This is not just organizational flow-chart stuff. This concerns the accountability of the agency responsible for assisting people in an emergency. An agency can be made cabinet level only by an act of Congress. Otherwise its status and the extent of presidential attention is ad hoc, and subject to the whims of the president at any given time. This was the reason, for example, why the Office of Homeland Security established after 9/11 was upgraded to a Department, despite initial resistance from President Bush: to give it cabinet authority and budgetary power. And, moreover, as a mean by which Congress forces the President to take heed of the needs and functions of the agency/department in question.
It is unfortunate, to say the least, that warnings about that agency’s poor standing in the executive branch that go at least as far back as the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew were not heeded and turned into law. Quite the contrary, the agency got subordinated to DHS in 2002, and preparations for the specific sort of disaster that has just taken place were subjected to budget cuts.
The risks of placing FEMA in this new super-agency instead of maintaining its organizational independence were noted at the time. For instance, the Washington Post on July 24, 2002 noted that:
FEMA, since its rejuvenation during the Clinton administration under James Lee Witt, has become one of the most popular agencies with the public and Congress. With the Cold War having ended, Witt, the former director of Arkansas’s emergency services, reduced spending and concern with civil defense preparations to meet a nuclear attack, and focused on rapid on-the-scene delivery of services when disasters struck.
Note that this is the sort of ad hoc reorganization, dependent on the priorities of the incumbent president, that I was referring to above. This was not a change that was institutionalized in legislation. In fact, the big change that was institutionalized in legislation was the subordination to DHS in 2002.
Continuing with the Post‘s 2002 story:
The new FEMA, as envisioned by the Bush plan, would become a $ 6 billion agency within the new Homeland Security Department but, as members of Congress quickly noted, its major interest would change. It would become primarily a national security grant-giver, trainer and coordinator for meeting terrorist threats rather than being the primary responder, supervising and distributing major disaster relief. “It would change to be primarily a preparedness agency,” a congressional aide said. And, he added, “training for a terrorist attack is far different from training to meet national disasters.”
Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) has asked that FEMA remain outside the new department [...]
Witt, the former FEMA director, said moving “the entire agency into the new department will be a mistake.”
I do not believe it is “playing politics” with the disaster to point out that political decisions taken (and not taken) have had a nontrivial effect on the horrific impact of Katrina and the response to it. And, in fact, I am not even saying that the decision to place FEMA inside DHS has made the government’s response to this disaster less efficient that it otherwise would have been. What I am saying is that the possibility is there, and these days serve as a critical test of that decision.