Academic journal article Policy Review

FEMA after Katrina

Academic journal article Policy Review

FEMA after Katrina

Article excerpt

FOLLOWING A DEVASTATING hurricane, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is in crisis. Should it be abolished? Should emergency management responsibilities be given to the military? Returned to the states? Consider the descriptions from a post-disaster report:

Prior to the hurricane, "relations between the independent cities ... and the county government were poor, as were those between the county and the state.... After the disaster these relations did not improve, which impeded response and recovery efforts."

When the hurricane first made landfall, the country initially reacted with a "sense of relief" because the "most populated areas had been spared the full brunt of the storm." After a few days, however, it became apparent that flood waters would swamp both urban and rural areas, leaving thousands without power, food, water, or the possibility of evacuation.

Compounding disasters--wind, floods, communications and power failures--led to catastrophe. While a large state might have had the resources to respond quickly, small states were overwhelmed. "They [small states] usually cannot hold up their end of the [federal-state] partnership needed for effective response and recovery."

The severity of the disaster called into question the entire enterprise of federal involvement in natural hazard protection. "Emergency management suffers from ... a lack of clear measurable objectives, adequate resources, public concern or official commitments.... Currently, FEMA is like a patient in triage. The president and Congress must decide whether to treat it or to let it die." (1)

The above criticisms pertain not, as one might expect, to FEMA's recent woes in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina but to the agency's dilatory response to Hurricane Andrew, which devastated South Florida in 1992. After Andrew, Congress gave the agency an ultimatum: Make major improvements or be abolished. With the advice of the emergency management profession and an enterprising director, James Lee Witt, the agency underwent one of the most remarkable turnarounds in administrative history. In 1997, Bill Clinton called it one of the "most popular agencies in government." FEMA was well regarded by experts, disaster victims and its own employees. By 2005, however, the agency had once again fallen into ignominy.

Before issuing more cries for radical change at FEMA, reformers should look to the lessons of the agency's reorganization in the 1990s, which focused on natural disasters rather than national security. Its turbulent history shows that while the agency can marshal resources for natural disasters and build relationships with states and localities, it lacks sufficient resources to take on too many tasks. Today, FEMA faces a protean terrorist threat and an increasing array of technological hazards. To address contemporary threats, the agency must hone its natural disaster expertise and delegate authority for disaster response to states and localities. True, delegation runs the risk of returning to the days of ad hoc disaster preparedness, when government poured money into recovery without reducing vulnerability to disasters. Nevertheless, decentralizing response functions is the best way to prepare for an increasingly complex array of disasters, as the risks and strategies for recovery for different kinds of disasters vary so dramatically from region to region.

The birth of emergency management

WHEN VIEWED AGAINST the history of emergency management, the success FEMA enjoyed in the 1990s was the exception, not the rule. For most of the century, states and localities rushed to the aid of disaster-stricken citizens, and the federal government helped overwhelmed communities with recovery. As a result, the federal government sent supplies, surveyors, and money to help rebuild the same regions over and over again. Federal involvement dates from at least the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which registered an estimated 8. …

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