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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Friday, April 28, 2006
Is FEMA the Problem?

The leaders of the Senate Homeland Security Committee have now issued a report calling for the elimination and replacement of FEMA. FEMA must be entirely dismantled. say the Senators, because:

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said FEMA "has become a symbol of a bumbling bureaucracy" that must be dismantled, and merely "tweaking the organizational chart" will not solve failures exposed by the hurricane.

How exactly did FEMA get to be so bad? After all, only a decade ago, Daniel Franklin in the Washington Monthly praised the "FEMA Phoenix" and noted that FEMA, humiliated by its failure to respond to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, was the "most dramatic success story of the federal government in recent years". Its responsiveness was widely praised by local officials as well as those it assisted.

The true judge of FEMA's success lies not in the praise of Congress, though, but in the minds of the victims of natural disasters. Last year, FEMA sent 5,000 surveys to victims to ask them about the agency's performance. More than 80 percent of the respondents approved of the way the agency was doing its job--a percentage that would have been unthinkable in the dark days following Hurricane Andrew just one year before.

80% satisfaction is pretty good, but the study cited below indicates it got even higher by the late 90s: "Individual citizens and public sector organizations both receive disaster aid, and they are surveyed afterward to assess the quality of information FEMA provided, promptness, ease of access, flexibility, and overall quality of service. Depending on the question, between 89 and 97 percent of individuals give FEMA positive ratings; the numbers show some slight improvement over the past few years."

When the nonpartisan Mercatus Center sought "to identify exemplary agencies that have taken the lead in clearly stating their missions and improving their performance", FEMA was chosen for an in depth case study. Reading the study, one thing that becomes very clear is when the agency turned from a failure into a success.

In fiscal 1998, FEMA took an average of 8 days to get relief checks to disaster victims, down from 10 days in 1997 and a high of 20 days in 1992....

Since 1993, FEMA’s culture has changed dramatically, from a formal, bureaucratic culture focused on processes to a less formal, action-oriented culture focused on results....

Since its reorganization in 1993, FEMA has significantly improved its ability to deal with disasters...

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) complained in 1992, “I am outraged by the federal government’s pathetically sluggish and ill-planned response to the devastating disaster wrought by Hurricane Andrew in Florida and Louisiana, which has left many lives in shambles. Time and again, the federal government has failed to respond quickly and effectively to major disasters, and no lessons have been learned from past mistakes.”...

The National Academy of Public Administration opined in February 1993, “FEMA has been ill-served by congressional and White House neglect, a fragmented statutory charter, irregular funding, and the uneven quality of its political executives appointed by ast presidents....

In 1993, Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) introduced legislation to abolish FEMA. One year later, he withdrew his bill and complimented the agency on its improved performance....

When Hurricane Andrew stuck Florida in 1992, the city of Miami’s emergency director asked, ”Where the hell’s the cavalry on this one?” (Schneider 1995, p. 95) But in 1999 she commented, “FEMA didn’t have the funding system or the capabilities before Andrew. Now it’s like an assembly line…It’s just straight-forward....

Prior to 1993, FEMA had never enunciated its overriding mission. This exacerbated management problems resulting from the way in which FEMA was created....

Prior to 1993, it’s not clear what, if any, meaningful communication occurred between FEMA’s top executives and its employees. FEMA directors made little effort to promote communication; some even sought to get private elevators and bathrooms that would further distance them from the employees.

It would seem that something happened in 1993 to dramatically improve FEMA's from a failure to a success, and something else happened not long after this study was published in 2000 that sent FEMA back into a tailspin. Now what might that have been?

In Franklin's interesting article the key sentences are probably these: "Because FEMA had 10 times the proportion of political appointees of most other government agencies, the poorly chosen Bush appointees had a profound effect on the performance of the agency. Sam Jones, the mayor of Franklin, Louisiana, says he was shocked to find that the damage assessors sent to his town a week after Hurricane Andrew had no disaster experience whatsoever. 'They were political appointees, members of county Republican parties hired on an as-needed basis.... They were terribly inexperienced.'... Clinton and Witt demonstrated an understanding of the virtues of the patronage system. The high number of political appointees allowed the new administration to free itself of the incompetents and replace them with talented new people."

FEMA is structured with more direct political appointees than most other federal agencies. Thus it became a dumping ground for incompetent party loyalists. That allowed Clinton to revitalize the agency with skilled and qualified personnel relatively rapidly. It also enabled Bush 43 to undo Clinton's work equally effectively.

Even when the Senate report tries to blame state and local government, it only succeeds in underlining the decline of FEMA. The Executive Summary notes: "The Committee believes that leadership failures needlessly compounded these losses. Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco –who knew the limitations of their resources to address a catastrophe—did not specify those needs adequately to the federal government before landfall. For example, while Governor Blanco stated in a letter to President Bush two days before landfall that she anticipated the resources of the state would be overwhelmed, she made no specific request for assistance in evacuating the known tens of thousands of people without means of transportation, and a senior state official identified no unmet needs in response to a federal offer of assistance the following day." But Franklin notes that FENA has the authority - and once had the ability - to respond even without a spicific list of needs from local authorities: "FEMA's enabling legislation, the Stafford Act, provided FEMA officials with powers that the bureaucrats didn't exercise. 'We found that without state requests, FEMA could assess the catastrophic area, assess what assistance the state needed, start mobilizing that relief, present its recommendations to the governor, and, if necessary... get in the governor's face to force the issue of accepting federal help.'"

Susan Collins now wants us to believe that FEMA is hopelessly faulty. The truth is, it's simply saddled with political hacks - the hacks which the President she supports appointed. Of course those nominees then had to be approved, but I suspect that Collins - and probably Lieberman too - voted to approve every one of them.

Collins is trying to avoid a basic truth: the reason why FEMA had a disastrous response to Katrina, and is apparently entirely unprepared for this year's coming hurricane season, is George Bush and his rubber stamp Republican majority.