A Crisis Agency In Crisis
FEMA's mission is dealing with emergencies. Now it faces one of its own
Almost from the moment Katrina struck, Michael Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was the subject of ferocious criticism. But last week things got even worse for the FEMA chief. The announcement by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff that Brown would be replaced as the lead federal relief official in New Orleans by Coast Guard veteran Thad Allen was a blunt rebuke, especially by an administration that typically ignores disapproval of its own and prizes loyalty among top officials. Calls for Brown's head escalated. Published reports raised questions about the accuracy of Brown's official government bio. By week's end, Brown was packing his bags for Washington while Allen assumed expanded responsibilities for all Katrina-related recovery efforts.
Brown's public humiliation was just Act I in a classic Washington passion play. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers debated how FEMA should be managed, why it was so slow off the mark, and what needs to be done to fix the place. In reality, though, FEMA's problems are far more complicated than the Katrina imbroglio might indicate. And they're not going to be solved just by getting rid of Brown.
Created in 1979, after criticism of previous disaster-relief efforts, FEMA is no stranger to controversy. After Hurricane Hugo in 1989, South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings called FEMA officials "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever known." Kate Hale, the former emergency management director of Miami- Dade County, was so exasperated by FEMA's response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that she asked in a tearful press conference, "Where the hell is the cavalry?"
After that, some say, things got a bit better. President Bill Clinton gave FEMA cabinet status, and his director, James Lee Witt, a former Arkansas emergency management director, received generally high marks.
But FEMA's privileged status was short-lived. Two years ago, the agency was merged with the 180,000-person Department of Homeland Security. That, says George Haddow, a former deputy chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration, spelled trouble. After 9/11, Haddow explains, "disaster management and response didn't fit with the [FEMA] program." Homeland Security officials say their department focuses on "all hazards," but detractors saw the FEMA they knew depleted and consigned to the back burner. Earlier this summer, the Government Accountability Office reported that first responders complained that the Department of Homeland Security's "emphasis for grant funding was too heavily focused on terrorism." In a survey last year, 80 percent of FEMA employees said the agency had been weakened by joining DHS.
Not all of the agency's problems are the result of the merger, however. According to FEMA's website, roughly a third of its current senior staff is made up of "acting" employees. "FEMA has absolutely no stability," says Rep. Bennie Thompson, the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee. " . . . So it's impossible for any local official to form any kind of meaningful relationship with the top."
Many critics say that inexperienced leadership has contributed to FEMA's woes. According to the Washington Post , five of FEMA's top eight officials had virtually no disaster-management experience when they joined the agency.