Monday, September 15, 2008

The FEMA-DHS divorce

This is a repost of a diary I wrote at Daily Kos today. Enjoy.

Before I get to the meat of this diary, I have to say that my prayers go out to the people of Houston, Galveston, and other areas that Ike hit. I also have to sincerely apologize for politicizing disasters, but this issue has been on my mind for the past couple of weeks.

I firmly believe that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has no business being a small part of the sprawling Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Follow me below the fold for my reasoning and a small plea for assistance with a research paper.

(Insert DKos fold here.)

MSNBC as well as many of our esteemed diarist are reporting that the victims of Ike are having a hard time getting things like water, ice and MREs. It feels like New Orleans 2005 all over again.

We are all now aware that the major reason for the botched response to Katrina was that FEMA was (and still is) an agency within DHS. That means there are additional layers of red tape to cut through in order to get anything done. This is a particular problem when an agency is responding to a crisis.

Here is a perfect summary of the problems FEMA faced on the Gulf Coast in 2005:

Many believe that one of the most grievous errors in judgment occurred at the top of the DHS hierarchy. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff waited fully three days before declaring Katrina an issue of "national concern." During that time, the National Weather Service " ... was absolutely clear about what was going to happen," according to Kary Joblonka of the Professional Development Program at Rockefeller College of the University at Albany. The storm was "... the most anticipated catastrophe of the modern world," Jablonka said.

The situation deteriorated quickly, with thousands of displaced residents stranded in New Orleans for days without food, water, or medical supplies. Maine Senator Susan Collins has contended that this phlegmatic response was rooted in a failure of coordination between FEMA and bodies that are outside of DHS jurisdiction, yet are also responsible for disaster relief, such as the National Guard.

Before I get to the Congressional solution, a little history would be helpful. (Note: I am not going to include many links here as this information is available through multiple sources, however this article from Rolling Stone is very thorough.)

Prior to 1979, the federal response to major natural disasters was fragmented. Every time a disaster hit, a task force was appointed to coordinate the federal response. Once the crisis was over, so was the federal response. There were two problems. First, this set up did not account for any preparations (like making sure plenty of drinking water was available after a flood) between crises. Second, there was no institutional learning or memory. That means the successes and failure of the past were not easily reused or discarded as appropriate.

President Carter formed FEMA in 1979 to respond to natural and man-made disasters. FEMA was made an independent agency, answerable only to the President for operations and Congress for funding. Now there was an agency that could coordinate response between state and federal agencies and that could plan for the next disaster.

During the 1980s, President Reagan changed FEMA's focus to preparing for the aftermath of a nuclear war that never happened.Predictably, FEMA had a string of failures late in the decade. At that time, there were calls to incorporate FEMA into the Department of Defense. Thankfully, that did not happen.

Then Bill Clinton was elected. Clinton appointed James Witt as head of FEMA. He was the former director of Arkansas emergency management department. It was obvious political appointment, but for the first time a person with emergency management experience was in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. More importantly, FEMA was given cabinet level status, meaning that Witt had Clinton's ear in the event of an emergency. The results were telling: FEMA was a shining example of how an executive branch agency should operate.

Then came the Decider in Chief. Bush decided that his former campaign manager Joe Allbaugh should be in charge of FEMA. After 9/11, someone in the bureaucracy noticed that acts of terrorism will require disaster response. Therefore, FEMA should become one of 22 agencies incorporated into the new DHS. Notably, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin warned against the move.

Of course, FEMA has not had to respond to an act of terrorism since then (unless you count the anthrax attacks in 2002). FEMA's primary mission is still in the realm of natural disaster remediation rather than responses to terrorism.

Somewhere along the way, Allbaugh hired his old college buddy Mike "heckuva job" Brown, who was FEMA head when Katrina hit. There is evidence that Brown was more interested in his wardrobe and how much time he would have for dinner than actually responding to the disaster. There was plenty of time to prepare for the storm, but Brownie (who had zero emergency management experience) did nothing. As a result, the people in New Orleans were stranded in a football stadium and conference center for days without food, water, or sanitation.

Brown got canned and Congress started an investigation. Initially, there was a push to restore FEMA to its former status it enjoyed as an independent agency. This effort was led by Senators Hillary Clinton, Daniel Akaka, Barbara Boxer, Trent Lott, and Rep. Tom Davis a Republican from Virginia. After a lack of response by FEMA to some ice storms in Oklahoma in January, 2007 the very Republican delegation from that state called for FEMA to regain its independent status as well. This includes Coburn and Inhofe.

As it stands, FEMA is still a part of DHS, but has more authority and flexibility. This was a result of a compromise while a funding bill was making its way through the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The committee is chaired by Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins is the ranking Republican.

While it is premature to assume that the FEMA failures in Texas are a result of the agency's place within DHS, the empirical evidence is clear. FEMA functioned best as an independent agency headed by an experienced emergency manager.

This is not simply an esoteric argument meant for a few high-ranking Senators and executives. This is an issue of lives, homes and livelihoods. People died in New Orleans because of bureaucratic delays. The same thing might be true in the aftermath of Ike, but it is a little too early to say that for certain.

So if you made it this far, thanks. Now I am hoping for help from my fellow Kosacks. I am writing a paper on this topic for a class I am taking in pursuit of my masters degree. Does any one out there know of any Senators or Representatives who are actively pushing for FEMA's independence? I can say that three bills calling for this have died in committee. Does any one know if there has been any other movement on this? Has Obama said anything about it? What about the Senators and Representatives in Texas?

Thanks and the gods bless Texas.


Wharf Rat said...

You're posting diaries on DKos now? This is great! Never thought I'd know a real live Washington insider.

Possibly more comments to come after I actually read the article...

Jenn said...

It sort of has the effect of nullifying the impact of the old X-Files movie, you know, the one in which FEMA is behind all these freakish underhanded conspiracies? Hey Chris, maybe it wasn't a case of disorganized agencies and political patronage at all. Those FEMA guys were too busy harvesting Africanized bees with Alien DNA! Well, THAT makes me feel better.

Chris said...

Hey, Jenn

Yeah. I have been struggling with the idea of adding the conspiracy theory to my paper as a quick aside. I probably will since this professor has a good sense of humor.

Also, the X-Files was largely before the consolidation with DHS in 2003. This brings up the question of who really is the shadow government.

Oh, and I just found out that Dick Cheney lives right down the street from AU. Creepy.