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The Rise and Fall of FEMA
Linda Rowan

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been under fire since it failed to adequately prepare for and effectively respond to Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Louisiana coast on Aug. 29, 2005, as a Category-3 storm. This is not the first time that FEMA has come up short in the face of a strong hurricane. Their preparations and response are similar to problems the agency experienced when Hurricane Andrew struck the Florida coast as a Category-4 storm on Aug. 24, 1992. Created to make federal disaster response more effective, the recently restructured FEMA remains hampered by management, authority and communication issues.

State governors called for the creation of FEMA after a string of disastrous hurricanes (Carla, 1962; Betsy, 1965; Camille, 1969; and Agnes, 1972) and two major earthquakes (Alaska, 1964; and San Fernando, 1971). State officials had difficulties responding to these events, while dealing with a plethora of disparate federal agencies, so they pressed President Jimmy Carter to create a centralized federal agency that would be more effective and more responsive to state needs. Carter’s executive order in 1979 created FEMA and merged many smaller agencies. The order transferred the authority vested in the president for emergency response to the director of FEMA, including duties described in the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950, the two disaster relief acts of 1970 and 1974, and the Earthquake Hazard Reduction Act of 1977.

In 1988, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act replaced several previous relief acts, to spell out how much federal aid a state or local community could receive, essentially increasing the federal commitment to communities. The act also tried to simplify and clarify the statutory authority of FEMA. Under the act, once a governor has made a specific request, the president has the authority to provide federal aid and direction for all federal resources. Once the president has declared a disaster, a federal coordinating officer (FCO) assigned by the director of FEMA coordinates the federal response. The president can give the FCO authority to coordinate all relief activities if the local community is overwhelmed. Also at the request of the governor, the president may utilize military resources, which are generally directed toward the stated needs of the governor.

The system, however, broke down with Hurricane Katrina, partly because of confusion about who had authority, a lack of pre-planning before the storm, a hesitancy of the military to get involved and a lack of communication within devastated communities. Critics have also blamed FEMA’s reorganization within the Department of Homeland Security as another reason for its troubled response to this storm. Again, history can provide some perspective on what may have gone wrong.

When Hurricane Andrew struck Florida and the Gulf Coast in 1992, FEMA was an independent agency. Like Katrina, Andrew had the potential to devastate a major city, Miami, but veered just south. Early assessments suggested that there was less damage than expected. Later reports from southern Dade County, however, were shocking, and it soon became clear that FEMA was unprepared to handle that level of devastation. Food, water, shelter, security and electricity did not arrive for days, and chaos and frustration erupted in many areas. In the end, Andrew caused 23 deaths and about $30 billion in property damage, and left 250,000 people homeless.

President Bill Clinton took office soon after Hurricane Andrew and elevated FEMA to a cabinet-level agency. He appointed James Lee Witt, a former state emergency manager, as director (which was the first time FEMA had a leader with emergency management experience), and had Witt report directly to him. Witt proceeded to streamline operations, emphasize preparation and require effective customer service.

The September 11 terrorist attacks refocused attention on disaster response, and President George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security in March 2003, consolidating 22 federal agencies into one massive administration. FEMA became an office in the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate and began to focus primarily on terrorism. In June 2005, Michael Brown, who was appointed director of FEMA in January 2003, decried the de-emphasis on natural hazards and the reduction of resources for FEMA in a letter to Michael Jackson, the second-in-command at Homeland Security. Hurricane Katrina struck two months later, causing more than 1,300 deaths and more than $100 billion in property damage, and displacing as many as 1 million people.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, based on a study completed before the storm, directed that FEMA no longer be responsible for preparedness and not have a director appointed by the president. Instead, a new Undersecretary of Preparedness (George Foresman, Virginia’s Emergency Manager) will lead a new Directorate of Preparedness. Preparedness and Response will be separate directorates that oversee multiple smaller agencies with overlapping responsibilities.

Thus, Homeland Security has returned to an organizational structure that is similar to the structure that did not work in the 1960s and 1970s. Such an organizational structure may create greater management and leadership problems because it is possible that one agency may assume the other agency is handling some critical preparation task, leaving no one responsible for the needs. States and disaster experts have repeatedly noted that effective response often depends on coordinated preparation, as was the case with the Coast Guard during Hurricane Katrina — a prime example of good preparation coordinated with relief efforts.

FEMA has long been working on three major disaster scenarios: a hurricane hitting New Orleans, a major earthquake occurring in San Francisco and a terrorist act affecting New York City. Such planning shows that the federal government has been giving serious consideration to some good plans for several major and very probable disasters. Through such efforts, the government can move forward, to effectively use science and technology in preparation for different risk scenarios and to more effectively respond to the next major disaster.

With the threat of terrorism still high, more hurricanes expected in the near future, continued flooding from hurricanes and other storms, unpredictable earthquakes, and significant population growth in high-risk regions, federal disaster preparedness and response have never been more important. Future mismanagement could cost the nation unnecessary loss of life and excessive economic losses.


Rowan is director of the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program. E-mail: rowan@agiweb.org.

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