Don’t kill FEMA

A bipartisan Senate panel thinks that the only way to save the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is to kill it. That is right; put a stake through its heart. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), chair of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has been quoted as saying that FEMA is in shambles, beyond repair, and it needs to be abolished.

Over in the House of Representatives, House Transportation and Infrastructure chair Don Young (R-AK) has a completely different tack. He introduced a bill on May 9th to remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) entirely. Under his bill, FEMA would become a cabinet level government agency again. Not everyone in the House agrees, of course. A bill introduced by Dave Reichert (R-WA), chair of the House Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness Subcommittee, would keep FEMA where it is inside of DHS, but strengthen it.

There is no question that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last year, FEMA performed miserably. Here is it, nine months later, and it is hard to see much tangible progress rebuilding New Orleans. (Fortunately, other parts of the Gulf Coast are doing better.) New Orleans is a fraction of its former population. Most of those who left are unlikely to come back. The future Chocolate City, if it recovers, is more likely to resemble an Oreo Cookie.

Meanwhile, the 2006 hurricane season is almost upon us. I hope that during this season that there will not be so many hurricanes that we have to resort to the Greek alphabet again. Nonetheless, the upward trend in hurricanes (as well as other natural disasters) is worrisome. Our government needs to be much better prepared this year. It is hard to see how abolishing FEMA is going to improve the situation. Even a bad response to a major hurricane beats no response.

It is clear what went wrong with FEMA. First, against its wishes, it was absorbed into the new Department of Homeland Security. Second, its disaster preparedness budget was dramatically cut. Third, President Bush picked Michael Brown to run the agency. He came with the sterling qualifications of running the Arabian Horse Association. Fourth, FEMA was forced to take on new missions in national security for which it had no expertise.

Not surprisingly, FEMA quickly moved from one our most effective federal agencies to one of our most dysfunctional agencies. Knowing these major changes were no way to do disaster management, senior employees and critical knowledge workers grew disgusted and left. Among those who remained, morale plummeted. Meanwhile, at the nascent Department of Homeland Security, when they were not scurrying around trying to get a dozen agencies to dance together, they saw the threat of international terrorism as their top priority. FEMA’s natural disaster preparedness program got table scraps. Moreover, now it had to petition for the president’s ear through Michael Chertoff, the secretary of DHS.

This was not a palatable recipe for an agency that needed to be agile. Consequently, FEMA became a shadow of its former self. When Hurricane Katrina barreled into the Gulf Coast, it demonstrated that it no longer had the right resources to respond to major natural disasters.

From its formation in 1978 until it was absorbed into DHS, FEMA excelled at dealing with natural disasters. This is not to say they did not make their share of mistakes over the years. Any major disaster requires recovery time. Nevertheless, typically FEMA could be a major presence in a disaster zone within days of the natural disaster. They had food and bottled water distribution and the emergency shelter business down to a science. Living in disaster zones was not grand, but thanks to FEMA, it was bearable.

Killing FEMA makes no sense. Rather FEMA needs a little disaster help of its own. It needs funding and the right kind of leadership to regain its moorings. A former FEMA director would be a good transitionary choice for the agency. Instead of having to perform new missions, it needs to focus on being the agency that coordinates and provides initial relief for medium and large-scale natural disasters. Muddying its mission has proven disastrous.

In addition, since the president solemnly swears to protect the United States of America, FEMA needs cabinet level status again. Millions of people at risk from a natural disaster should not have to wait while an intermediary bureaucracy decides whether an event warrants presidential attention.

If FEMA is killed, something resembling it will doubtlessly be rebuilt. Since the number of disaster preparedness officials is a finite number, any new agency will probably have most of the same people who are already work for FEMA. It is likely though that as a new organization and chain of command is put in place, this new agency will in the short term become more ineffectual. Consequently, killing FEMA is likely to reduce our ability to respond to natural disasters. It seems unlikely that a new FEMA would perform better than the FEMA we knew and respected prior to its inclusion in DHS.

So do not kill it. The recipe is simple: put FEMA back the way it was in the 1990s. Pull it out of DHS. Put it back in the cabinet. Keep its mission focused on natural disaster readiness. Moreover, provide it with adequate funds to ensure it can respond to natural disasters that seem to be growing in size and complexity.

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