Why FEMA Must Be Kept and Strengthened

By Wesley W. Posvar. Wesley W. Posvar, the first chairman of the Fema Advisory Board, was president of the University of Pittsburgh from 1967-1991, and is now a member of the faculty there. | The Christian Science Monitor, September 15, 1992 | Go to article overview

Why FEMA Must Be Kept and Strengthened


Wesley W. Posvar. Wesley W. Posvar, the first chairman of the Fema Advisory Board, was president of the University of Pittsburgh from 1967-1991, and is now a member of the faculty there., The Christian Science Monitor


DISASTER relief has become a hot entry among political issues currently up for debate in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, and now Hawaii's Hurricane Iniki. The federal government has plunged in, deploying United States military personnel and equipment. Media coverage has matched that of the Desert Storm war last year. Yet, in all this activity, long shadows are being cast against the nation's future.

After Andrew, much partisan criticism was aimed at the recovery efforts. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has come under harsh attack, which has become typical of the period following floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes. This is not surprising in view of the human suffering involved, but some critics have gone so far as to push for the abolition of the agency.

Changes are needed. But first there needs to be a clear understanding of the changing role of federal emergency preparedness in the aftermath of the cold war. What is the context for future national and international security needs?

The long-time predecessor of FEMA was the Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP). Situated in the White House, it had a voice in the National Security Council. At that time this office had a parallel and ambiguous responsibility for war-time civil defense with the Pentagon, where this concern was given low priority.

Into the 1970s, emergency preparedness was concerned with the contingency of war, particularly nuclear war. But the OEP was sporadically utilized for other things, even for managing price controls. Natural disasters requiring emergency relief were dealt with on an ad hoc basis. That mission was a neglected step-child.

During the Carter administration, a committee within the Office of Management and Budget developed an enlightened and bipartisan plan for combining all aspects of emergency preparedness for disasters - whether wartime, man-made, or natural - into one agency. The idea was to correlate the amazingly inconsistent and incomplete emergency planning of all federal agencies and state governments. The result was FEMA, a "Level II" organization, just under Cabinet status, reporting nominally to the president.

Despite critics, in the ensuing years the bipartisan character of FEMA's mission was maintained and its expertise gradually enhanced through three Republican administrations.

Over the years, however, political appointments increased and bickering repeatedly occurred because of state governments' displeasure with FEMA's allocation of federal relief funds. FEMA's budgets were felt by its supporters to be skimpy in relation to its enormous mission, and the agency became virtually ignored by the White House.

The cold war national security interest of the earlier OEP continued in FEMA, though it was largely frustrated. National security was focused by advisers to the agency and some staff on these key aspects: industrial mobilization issues, continuity of government in war-time, counter-terrorist capability, and civil defense. But the nuclear balance of terror - the prospect, however slight, of wholesale devastation in nuclear war - rendered such measures as mobilization and protecting the population from bombing, reminiscent of World War II, of negligible funding importance. …

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