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Fumbling FEMA Wants Back in the Game

• October 16, 2009 • 5:00 AM

A political scientist argues that while FEMA has pulled up its socks since Hurricane Katrina, it’s still not ready for primetime.

In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security gobbled up the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the 30-year-old bureaucracy that coordinates responses to natural disasters. The change left FEMA gutted and impotent, and when Hurricane Katrina struck two years later, the results were devastating.

What’s troubling, though, is that post-Katrina congressional reforms haven’t fully addressed the agency’s woes, argues North Carolina State University political science professor Thomas Birkland in a recent paper.

Birkland, author of books such as Lessons of Disaster: Policy Change after Catastrophic Events, has long studied the way governments respond to disastrous events. The sweeping governmental changes after the 9/11 attacks, and more modest alterations after Katrina, provided excellent real-world case studies to test his theories.

Miller-McCune.com spoke with Birkland about why FEMA still lacks the power to help the nation prepare for and mitigate natural disasters. Here’s an edited transcript.

Miller-McCune.com: You argue that FEMA’s performance on 9/11 didn’t justify any sort of changes. Why not?

Thomas Birkland: 9/11 was a disaster. Hurricane Katrina was a catastrophe. A catastrophe completely overwhelms the ability of authorities to manage an event. 9/11 didn’t completely overwhelm New York City’s authorities — they were able to move their command center twice. The physical extent of the damage was only 15 to 20 acres.

The extent of damage nationally, and on the stock market, was substantial. But nothing about the response overall to the event suggested that anything was wrong with FEMA or that it needed to be swept into some big agency. FEMA did play a role, but it didn’t have to do much other than activities like mobile search and rescue. FEMA doesn’t put a lot of people on the ground in any disaster. They provide funding, and NYC had the capacity to right away make applications to FEMA for funding.

The Bush administration and the agency argued that nothing about this event required the creation of DHS. Then they got caught up in the politics. At some level, it was sensible. It’s an agency that coordinates with other homeland security functions. It would’ve been fine — had they not gutted it.

M-M: How did that restructuring affect the way FEMA responded to Hurricane Katrina?

TB: A lot of people at the top of DHS didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on in natural disasters. Most of the people making plans for disasters either did not or would not consult with the people studying how to deal with these things for over 50 years. The extent to which DHS’s higher administration ignored social research on these matters was breathtaking. If they had, they would have found that a top-down, command-and-control model for dealing with the consequences of a disaster isn’t very helpful.

The 2004 hurricane season in Florida gave them undue confidence in their ability to handle a catastrophic natural disaster. But those were four in a series; they weren’t “the big one.” Inside DHS, they weren’t mentally prepared for a catastrophic disaster. When they were getting reports about the extent to which the city of New Orleans was flooded, they refused to believe them.

M-M: After Katrina, Congress restored some of FEMA’s budget and staffing to deal with natural disasters. But you seem to think the agency, because it’s inside DHS, remains excessively focused on terrorism.

TB: The broader thing that hasn’t changed at DHS is the war on terrorism metaphor. War brings a sense of military action, even if we still use traditional law enforcement tools like prosecutions. There may be a reversal of that now, but in [Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet] Napolitano’s speeches, she’s focused on issues like immigration. I don’t hear anything from DHS senior leadership on natural disasters. Maybe they don’t perceive their job that way. Maybe they now believe FEMA is separate, like the Coast Guard.

M-M: Have you seen encouraging signs from the Obama-era FEMA?

TB: They’ve put in a solid FEMA administrator in Craig Fugate [who led Florida’s disaster response]. Now, they were required to put in a good FEMA administrator by the post-Katrina reform act. It would’ve been hard for them to appoint folks like those that preceded him, who really weren’t that experienced in emergency management. But the fact that they went and got one of the best people in the country, a guy who is widely respected, I think that is a positive sign.

M-M: You criticize FEMA’s overemphasis on disaster response, as opposed to mitigating hazards before they occur. How much power does Fugate have to reorient that mission?

TB: The problem with mitigation is that it requires a lot of local effort. You have to adopt land-use practices that would be very unpopular, reduce taxable property and taxes, and constrain the ability of communities to grow.

For example, we social scientists say they should discourage building on beaches to lower hurricane and flooding risk. If local politicians tried to make that happen, they’d run up against howls of anger from real estate developers and condominium buyers.

The federal government is very wary of injecting itself into local land-use decision-making because it raises major federalism and constitutional problems. The best the federal government can do is provide technical assistance and hints that they should undertake various land use planning or building code changes to mitigate the hazards. The federal government can also provide funding. Some will go to buying out property in dangerous areas. Some will go to really small things, like building bigger culverts under roads so more storm water can get through.

What Fugate can do is make rhetorical appeals to communities to plan for disasters. He could promote programs at FEMA to provide technical assistance with local communities, to think long and hard about their risks.

M-M: Your paper lays out three scenarios: In one, FEMA would continue as a civil defense agency, as it did through the Reagan years, with terrorism the chief priority. In another, the agency would be carved out of DHS and go back what it was like under Clinton, except with greater attention to terrorist attacks. But your idealistic hope is for an enlightened, independent FEMA that looks at all hazards equally, and makes mitigation a primary goal. Which path are Napolitano and Fugate taking?

TB: I haven’t heard signals from the top of DHS saying one of the things they’re going to fix is FEMA. I don’t see any particular movement toward making it a separate agency, though Obama might make that move after the health care debate plays itself out.

What we’ve got now is a beefed-up FEMA that looks more like it did under Clinton FEMA director James Lee Witt, but without being a separate agency. And hazard mitigation has not returned to the level it enjoyed under Witt. That’s not entirely bad. Some FEMA functions were taken away in 2003, but now they’re put back together. Essentially they got their agency back.

M-M: So you think the organization is in reasonable shape, at least in responding to disasters?

TB: The real test will be if there’s a disaster and we find that FEMA is once again buried under several levels of DHS inexpert management. We won’t know until we have that test.

If a disaster requires significant executive leadership, I want the FEMA director to talk to the president. I want the president to make calls to the FEMA director. If he talks to the DHS secretary first, goes through the protocol, it’ll slow down and distort information. If the FEMA director can invoke the name of the president in demanding certain supplies, certain things can get done. He can’t invoke the name of the president unless he has a line of communication with the president. There’s no way that FEMA director Michael Brown had that during Katrina. I think this administration is open to not following the chain of command if it makes things work better.

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Ryan Blitstein
Ryan Blitstein is a freelance journalist based in Chicago and a Miller-McCune contributing editor. As a staff writer at the San Jose Mercury News, SF Weekly and Red Herring,, he covered everything from spray-can artists in San Francisco to homeland security start-ups in Tel Aviv. His writing has also appeared in the New York Observer, the New York Daily News and The Seattle Times. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Stanford University.

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