With outrage still building over the excruciatingly inadequate federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is facing a political storm of its own. The question of how FEMA--the government agency most responsible for containing the damage of such catastrophes--seemed to have abandoned hundreds of thousands of suffering Americans now seems destined for multiple government investigations.
- Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA
- One of the New Orleans levees damaged by the hurricane.
Tracing back through recent developments in federal emergency policy, there were some clear warning signs that FEMA has been set up to falter. A year ago, during the wave of hurricanes and floods that battered communities across the South, the Independent Weekly and six other alternative newsweeklies collaborated on an investigation of FEMA's approach to natural disasters under the Bush administration ("Disaster in the making"; for our story about the effects of FEMA cuts on North Carolina, see "In North Carolina, no emergency power and an end to a program that saved millions"). The articles showed that FEMA, which had won widespread praise during the 1990s for advancing its approach to natural disasters, was in a severe backslide.
Emergency managers from both inside and outside of government said in the story that President Bush has drained FEMA's natural disaster programs in a series of policy and budget changes, including:
A year later, these concerns have only intensified. Following the devastation of Katrina, and amid the mounting evidence that the federal government has done far too little, far too late to assist the storm's victims, some of the country's most experienced emergency managers have stepped forward to sound an alarm.
"We are so much less than what we were in 2000," said an unnamed senior FEMA official in a Sept. 1 Washington Post article. Another FEMA veteran said, "It's such an irony. I hate to say it, but we have less capability today than we did on Sept. 11."
Other emergency experts have gone on the record. FEMA "is being, in effect, systematically downgraded and all but dismantled by the Department of Homeland Security," wrote Eric Holdeman, director of emergency management in King County, Wash., in an Aug. 30 Washington Post op-ed. "[T]he advent of the Bush administration in January 2001 signaled the beginning of the end for FEMA. ... Our 'all-hazards' approaches have been decimated by the administration's preoccupation with terrorism."
On Sept. 5, the Los Angeles Times carried these remarks from Morrie Goodman, a Clinton-era FEMA official: "They've taken emergency management away from the emergency managers. These operations are being run by people who are amateurs at what they are doing."
In the same article, former and longtime FEMA official Richard W. Krimm said that "it was a terrible mistake to take disaster and recovery ... and disaster preparedness and mitigation, and put them in Homeland Security."
Eric Tolbert, a former North Carolina state emergency director who was a high-ranking FEMA official from 2002 until February of this year, told a Knight-Ridder reporter that the disastrous disaster response in the Gulf Coast was a product of FEMA's misplaced priorities.
"What you're seeing is revealing weaknesses in the state, local and federal levels," he said in the midst of New Orleans' week-long wait for substantial assistance. "All three levels have been weakened. They've been weakened by diversion into terrorism."
And in an interview with Salon.com, Tolbert drew a direct connection between FEMA's recent breakdown and the calamity unfolding in that city. In the summer of 2004, he said, the agency ran a "tabletop exercise" in Baton Rouge as part of an effort to craft a new plan for dealing with a serious hurricane strike in the New Orleans area. But then, the money dried up. "Unfortunately," Tolbert said, "we were not able to finish the plan."