Monday, September 05, 2005


Greg Beck, who's working hard at the KC FEMA office, writes in the comments:
Hey Josh, these are just some of my personal thoughts and I’m not trying to defend FEMA or pass the buck but here’s the deal as I see it as an insider. After 9/11 when FEMA got sucked into the huge bureaucracy that is the Department of Homeland Security we all knew we were screwed. Screwed as far as our mission I mean, which is to render aid during times of disaster.

Where before we were one of the few stand alone federal agencies unfettered by congress, we were able to perform our missions without dealing with the political bullshit some of the other federal agencies have to deal with. But since we got sucked into DHS our budget has been slashed tenfold and we’ve had to deal with Bush appointed leaders that know nothing of what we were all about or how we perform our mission.

And instead of being able to do our thing, now from DHS all we get is “why do you need this? What’s this for? Can’t you do with less”? So now we got people telling us what to do that only a few years before had never heard of FEMA. And lastly the only thing the Bush administration seems to focus on is terrorism which was fine but focusing all our shit on one thing also took from the other.

I work with normal people everyday that think nothing of putting themselves in harms way by going into a disaster area to aid victims. We had people and equipment in place along the gulf coast waiting on Katrina so that we could begin the process ASAP. But like the Army Corp of Engineers who last year asked for over 200 million to build up the levees and pumps around New Orleans and were told to fuck off by congress and were given only a fraction of what they asked for. We’re tripped up by the same bureaucratic bullshit that’s fuckin people in the gulf now. Don’t be hatin.
So, FEMA went from an independent and (under Clinton and James Lee WItt) well-run agency to a sub-fiefdom of DHS, a sprawling department which is still getting its legs. Independence didn't just mean that FEMA could set its own direction, it also was high enough profile to merit scrutiny for its administrator.

The events of 4 years ago (minus a week) changed the focus for everyone, especial people in crisis and disaster management. Where FEMA's major work was on tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and similar natural disasters, they now had to consider the threat of terrorist attacks with bombs, planes, and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

As Science Policy professor Roger Pielke, Jr. writes in an excellent review of the nature of the failures:

in the aftermath of 9/11 the Bush Administration completely reorganized itself to improve the nation's ability to secure itself. Under this new reorganization, DHS has comprehensively failed its first test. Congress needs to find out why, and fix it. We will have more disasters, that is for sure. The time to start asking hard questions is right now.
The organization of FEMA inside of DHS has not been a success. Whether it can be a success is a question Congress has to address seriously.

This is the problem with the idea of DHS, a department I was always skeptical about. Every part of the government is responsible for securing some aspect of the homeland. The Park Service protects our wild lands, the EPA protects our environment and the Coast Guard guards our coasts. Wrapping them all into a big department would de-emphasize non-emergency activities and actions not directed at terrorism.

FEMA has a vital role in any terrorism response scenario. But 99% of their work will be helping rebuild after wildfires, tornadoes, earthquakes and the occasional hurricane. And they usually do yeoman's work without making a fuss. That's what makes the colossal failure of the Katrina preparation and response so unconscionable. We know FEMA can do better.

To what extent did FEMA, the Coast Guard and other DHS agencies drop the ball because of the focus on terrorism responses? We know that the follow-up on last year's paper exercise on a hypothetical "Hurricane Pam" was left incomplete, at least partly due to financial constraints. Would the evacuation have gone better if they had a chance to figure out what went wrong in that simulation?

One of the great tragedies of the Bush years is the degree to which the mid-level

I'll be following this up with someone at DHS tomorrow, see what the scuttlebutt is inside. No matter what, Greg's comments match what other people are saying, which means that it's either a vicious rumor, or it's the truth. I vote for option two.

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