FEMA: IS IT SERVING ITS PURPOSE?
Following two of the most devastating natural disasters to occur in recent years, including Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, came under intense criticism. It even became an issue in the recent presidential campaign, when challenger Mitt Romney suggested that the agency should be considered for elimination. This multi-part report reviews the history of the federal government’s disaster response efforts, how FEMA came into being, how it works, and whether or not it is the most efficient way for Washington to respond to catastrophic incidents. This week, we examine FEMA’s background and the range of federal disaster assistance programs.
n 2011, according to FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate
, “FEMA responded to more disasters than any year in its history. The variety and magnitude of each event tested our capabilities, as well as the capabilities of communities across the country.” FEMA responded to 98 major disaster declarations, 26 emergency declarations, and 112 fire management assistance grant declarations. These included incidents as diverse as Hurricane Irene on the east coast, devastating tornadoes in Missouri, and record flooding in North Dakota.
EMA’s 2013 budget request
for fy 2013 is $13, 559,716,000. But has it accomplished the goals for which it was established? Has it performed effectively and efficiently?
Congress enacted over 128 individual laws in the period from 1803 to 1950, providing some disaster assistance to the states. There was no comprehensive scheme to do so, requiring specific responses to each major disaster.
Congress eventually enacted the Federal Disaster Relief Act (Public Law 81-875) in 1950, which granted the president the authority to provide supplemental federal assistance when the president approved a request from the governor for help.
ccording to FEMA’S historical description
, “A critical statement in the act established the philosophy of the nation’s disaster response and recovery program. Federal disaster assistance would ‘supplement the efforts and available resources of the state and local governments.’ The act made it clear that the federal government would not function as the first line provider of emergency assistance in disaster response and recovery. It would support state and local governments–not supplant them. To further underline this philosophy, the act required that federal assistance be supplied when, and only when, state and local government had themselves committed ‘a reasonable amount of the funds’ needed.”
Eighteen years later, Washington enacted the National Flood Insurance Act. Again, local participation was key.
he process of presidential declarations was eventually codified in the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 (Public Law 93-288.) Several years later, President Jimmy Carter required the federal government to undertake an extensive evaluation of its participation of disaster response and recovery programs. The 1979 creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
was the result of this review. The new agency brought together the emergency management programs that previously existed under separate federal departments.
Again, almost another decade passed, and The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (Public Law 100-707), was enacted in 1988. It provides the statutory authority for most Federal disaster response activities especially as they pertain to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and FEMA programs.
In 1992, the Federal Response Plan (FRP) was created. The FRP outlines the manner in which the federal government mobilizes its resources and conducts its activities to help state and local governments when disaster strikes. The abilities of 27 federal agencies and departments, combined with those of the American Red Cross, are coordinated to provide supplemental assistance under FEMA’s direction.
In 2002, FEMA, along with a number of other related executive branch components, were transferred to the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security with the enactment of Public Law 107-296. The Federal Response Plan was updated the following year to reflect the change.
According to FEMA, the agency has, since its inception, coordinated federal response and recovery efforts and supported state, local, tribal and territorial efforts in more than 1,800 incidents.
HOW THE PROCESS WORKS
Following a major disaster:
- The Federal Emergency Response Team’s Advance Element provides the frame work for Washington’s initial response.
- Along with the affected states, a joint preliminary damage assessment (PDA) is prepared.
- The affected state’s governor reviews the PDA data, and requests a presidential declaration.
- FEMA’s regional director makes a recommendation to the national FEMA leader.
- The President, upon deciding to declare a disaster, appoints a Federal Coordinating Officer.
- A disaster field office is jointly established by the federal and state coordinating officers.
- A FEMA/State agreement is signed, followed by a federal/state meeting.
AVAILABLE TYPES OF
FEDERAL DISASTER-RELATED ASSISTANCE
In the wake of a natural disaster, Washington has a variety of programs available for individuals, families, and private businesses including :
- The Disaster Food Stamp Program
- Disaster Housing Assistance
- Disaster Loans for Individuals & Businesses
- “Other Needs” Assistance (which can include household items, furnishings, and appliances; clothing; tools or specialized clothing and equipment needed by businesses; moving and storage of personal items to prevent further damage; privately owned vehicles; 3-year flood insurance
- Public Transportation or other transportation needs
- Medical, dental and funeral expenses
- Miscellaneous needs such as generators, wet/dry vacuuming, etc.
- Specialized help for farmers and ranchers
- Disaster unemployment assistance
- Assistance in IRS compliance
- Legal services
- Crisis counseling
- “Cora Brown” assistance. This includes needs specifically identified by FEMA staff for items such as home repair/rebuilding, health and safety measures, self-employment help, etc.
The federal government also provides various public assistance programs for community needs. These include:
- Emergency work, such as debris removal, search and rescue, demolition of damaged structures, etc.
- Permanent restoration work to replace roads, bridges, water facilities, police stations, hospitals, schools, etc.
- Utility replacement for water treatment, electrical power communications, sewerage, etc.
- Public parks and recreational facilities
- Health/sanitation needs
Some emergency work may be done by the Department of Defense.
The federal government contains a number of agencies that respond to disaster situations. While general assistance programs, including those administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and others, may be applied to singular incidents, it is Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that has prime responsibility.
Last week, we reviewed the history of Washington’s reaction to disasters, and FEMA’s history. This week, we examine FEMA’s performance in response to one of the greatest natural disasters to strike the United States.
Criticism of FEMA has intensified since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This event took in excess of 2,000 lives, and caused $90 billion of damage. Government response–at the city, state, and federal levels–was clearly inadequate.
EMA’s bureaucratic bungling was on an almost unimaginable scale. A George Mason University
study described the nonuse of available resources:
“In the first week of relief activities alone, FEMA refused to ship trailers to Mississippi that could be used as temporary housing for disaster victims, turned away critical generators needed by hospitals and victims for power, turned away trucks with water demanded by many, prevented the Coast Guard from delivering fuel critical to facilitating recovery activities, and refused Amtrak’s offer to evacuate victims who desperately needed to get out of the disaster zone. The last Amtrak train left New Orleans empty. FEMA clearly had no clue what was needed, or by whom. Even the American Bus Association, representing Greyhound Bus Lines, offered to help FEMA evacuate the Superdome and Convention Center. But, like so many others who offered their assistance, the American Bus Association’s offers fell on deaf ears, and they were never even able to get a reply or response from FEMA officials.
“FEMA moved a medical team of 30 people capable of treating hundreds of hurricane victims from Alabama to Mississippi, and then to Texas. For 11 days, medical team members say their relief activities were reduced to treating one small cut. And then FEMA moved them again–everywhere but where they were needed and could accomplish the most, which was New Orleans. ..A mobile communications unit…sat in Germany…for nine days. 1,000 firefighters…were sent to a hotel in Atlanta, forced to take days of sexual harassment courses…”
It was not only the aftermath that revealed FEMA’s flaws, according to the study.
“Although government agencies were aware the levee system had broken by 6:00 pm Monday, officials waited until the next day, at which point the city had been flooding for nearly 24 hours, before sounding the alarm. Similarly, FEMA did not request military assistance for nearly 24 hours, before sounding the alarm.”
FEMA’s missteps were matched by those of the State of Louisiana and the City of New Orleans. FEMA, as noted previously, responds, (upon the direction of the President) only with the cooperation of state and local officials.
The Louisiana governor and the New Orleans mayor failed to respond adequately to the dire challenge facing them. Numerous local residents were not evacuated, and endured extensive deprivations of food, water, and shelter. A rising tide of crime created misery adding to that already presented by flooding.
The problems arising during Katrina had their genesis long before the wind and rain hit New Orleans. Funds provided by the federal government for an evacuation plan had not been used for the purpose intended, thanks to the machinations of state and local officials.
When the hurricane did strike, Mayor Ray Nagin failed to timely implement an evacuation plan. Residents were sent to last-minute shelters, including the Superdome, that were inadequately provisioned, had poor sanitation, and were rife with crime. Buses that could have been employed for appropriate evacuations were unused, due to Nagin’s misplaced concerns about insurance liability and a lack of planning to provide a sufficient number of drivers. According to the George Mason report, Nagin delayed taking vital steps for 15 hours after being informed by the National Hurricane Center Director, Max Mayfield, that an unprecedented natural disaster would hit his city to mandate an evacuation.
Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco’s response was slow and insufficient. Under her direction, Louisiana’s national guard troops failed to quell civic disorder. Further, she did not agree to Washington’s request to allow federal troops to take over law enforcement activities.
All that being said, FEMA’s performance was far less than commendable. It took several days for the agency to truly begin functioning in an acceptable manner.
“[T]he real success story in the relief effort following Katrina …came from those who ignored FEMA, flouted the bureaucratic decision-making process, and took action without approval. The U.S. Coast Guard, for example, began its helicopter rescue efforts without waiting for any other government agency’s approval or coordination…A Canadian search and rescue team from Vancouver, without waiting for FEMA permission, arrived in New Orleans days before any FEMA coordinated units.”
The Sobel/Leeson study uses a “Tale of two sheriffs” to illustrate the bureaucratic bungling that characterized the response to Katrina.
The study notes that one sheriff, Warren Evans of Wayne County, Michigan “ignored both FEMA ad his governor’s instructions to wait for FEMA approval and went to New Orleans with nine truckloads of supplies and 33 deputies to help. Sheriff Randle, on the other hand, followed procedure, was buried under mounds of FEMA paperwork, and faced an un-navigable approval process. He never made it to New Orleans.”
n the aftermath of the hurricane, numerous aspects of FEMA’s response were appropriately criticized. A 2007 GAO report,
for example, examined contracts for temporary housing in Mississippi needed for displaced Katrina victims, and found that “FEMA’s ineffective oversight resulted in an estimated $30 million in wasteful and improper or potentially fraudulent payments to…contractors…”
“In a written statement, [Senate Homeland Security] chairwoman Susan Collins says that she and ranking Democrat Joseph Lieberman have concluded that FEMA is ‘in shambles and beyond repair.’ They’ve proposed instead that something called the National Preparedness and Response Authority be created within the Department of Homeland Security. It would coordinate all of the preparedness and disaster response activities in the federal government.”
he most recent FEMA activity came in response to Hurricane Sandy, a truly devastating weather event in late October of 2012 that provided significant harm to portions of the Northeast. According to a Forbes
Magazine report, the damage to New York City alone is estimated to be $33 billion. The initial storm’s effects were made worse by a nor’easter that occurred just a few days later. New York City and New Jersey suffered particularly dire effects, leaving numerous residents homeless or without power and fuel for prolonged periods in inclement weather.
ffected residents have complained that FEMA did little to alleviate suffering. According to a Fox News Report
, residents in hard-hit sections, such as NYC’s Staten Island, complained that FEMA accomplished close to nothing in the aftermath. They were particularly incensed when a FEMA office and related temporary shelters were closed
“due to weather” at one point. Administrator Craig Fugate denied the charges, and sent representatives to affected communities in a show of support.
ccording to former Mayor Guiliani
, speaking during the crisis, FEMA “Right now is doing a terrible job of disaster relief in my city, but no one is talking about it…People don’t have water, they don’t have food, electricity and FEMA is no where to be found.
FEMA has not responded as hoped to major disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. The reason for its disappointing performance may rest with a number of factors, including:
- Misuse of agency resources for lesser events that should have been handled solely at the local level; (The Wall Street Journal noted that annual FEMA disaster declarations “have multiplied … and have reached a yearly average of 153 under Obama” compared to 129.6 under President Bush, 89.5 under President Clinton, and 28 under President Reagan.)
- An excessive overlay of bureaucracy (several senators have suggested that FEMA be removed from the Department of Homeland Security and made an independent organization;)
- An altering of agency focus following its incorporation into the Department of Homeland Security;
- An abuse of the agency for political purposes.
In this week’s report, we examine these and other factors affecting FEMA.
n the aftermath of Katrina, The Department of Homeland Security issued an extensive report criticizing FEMA’s performance, which was widely reported on in the media
. While discussing the shortcomings of state and local government (and in the case of Katrina, there were many of these, and they were quite serious) it outlined extensive problems with FEMA’s response.
Among the most serious, the report noted:
- That the agency failed to timely grasp the magnitude of the disaster;
- A failure to mesh command and control functions with state and local authorities;
- Failure to provide emergency housing;
- Insufficient ability to conduct search and rescue operations;
- Poor delivery of emergency supplies; and
- Inadequate disaster drill training
INSPECTOR GENERAL REPORT
he Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General
(OIG) specifically criticized FEMA’s Public Assistance Preliminary Damage Assessment Process (PDA.) The PDA, established by the Code of Federal Regulations Title 44, Section 206, is a key part of the process in determining whether an incident becomes a federally declared disaster. Interpreted too liberally, relatively localized incidents could be put under FEMA’s jurisdiction, taking resources away from truly momentous events.
The report found that:
“Since 1986, FEMA has used an outdated per capita amount as an indicator that a disaster might warrant federal assistance. The agency selected the per capita amount of $1 based on the national per capita income; it did not adjust the amount annually for the changes in per capita income, but decided to adjust the amount for inflation in 1999. If the agency had continuously updated the indicator for changes in economic conditions, many recent disasters would not have met the financial statewide per capita indicator for federal assistance. In addition, there may be a better indicator based on a state’s need for assistance than the current financial statewide capita indicators, such as changes in per capita income or the Consumer Price Index. Given the federal government’s current economic and budgetary constraints, we recommend that FEMA revise the Public Assistance Preliminary Damage Assessment process to estimate a disaster’s magnitude and economic impact more realistically. Furthermore, the agency should reassess the criteria used to measure a state’s capacity to respond to a disaster to better reflect changing economic conditions. The agency also should determine whether other federal data measures would provide a better assessment of a state’s response capacity.”
FEMA did not react well to the findings, and mischaracterized it as an attempt to retroactively apply its financial findings, even though the OIG report never even discussed that topic.
ndependent organizations have backed the OIG by urging FEMA to reform. The Heritage Foundation
recommends that Congress mandate the suggested change in the PDA formula.
LONG STANDING CONCERNS
Although Hurricane Katrina occurred in 2005, concern about FEMA’s performance were discussed far earlier.
In 1996, James Lee Witt, who was then serving as FEMA’s director, testified to a Congressional committee that “As we are all aware, disasters are very political events.”
In their study, Sobel and Leeson note that “Each major U.S. disaster brings yet another tale of FEMA corruption and failure, and yet another Congressional investigation into the problems in FEMA.” They contrast government’s response to the tragedy with that of the private sector, which was comparatively swift and effective. According to the authors,
“Companies like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and State Farm Insurance made preparations for the impending disaster weeks before…and were willing to bring in resources to bear…days before government agencies could manage to do so….The widespread examples of successful private action in equivalent circumstances after Katrina clearly demonstrate that these government failures were not endemic to the situation-they were potentially avoidable under the right incentive structure.”
Sobel and Leeson stress that over-bureaucratization has essentially destroyed FEMA’s ability to timely respond to disasters. Further, they criticize the trend towards what they describe as “glory seeking” by politicians, who have a vested interest in limiting the success of private groups so that their branch of government can get the lion’s share of credit. Also, they stress, unlike the private sector, which must produce real results to remain profitable, government agencies concentrate on the appearance rather than the substance of success. The authors are sharply critical of government at the federal, state and local level to properly maintain New Orlean’s levies, and suggest a larger role for the private sector.
The Garrett/Sobel Report, published in 2003 in Economic Inquiry, contends that political influences play major role in the allocation of FEMA resources. They found that states “politically important” to the president, or where key Congressional elected officials represent, have a higher rate of disaster declarations than less well-connected jurisdictions.
PATH TO REFORM
The path to FEMA reform is clear.
- Make the bureaucracy manageable. Have a clear cut chain of command with as few decision makers as possible;
- Establish practical and strictly enforced criteria for the use of FEMA resources, ending the abuse of the agency for political purposes;
- Partner as extensively as possible with the private sector;
- Make it clear to state and local governments that they are the prime responders to any agency, large or small;
- Re-establish FEMA’s role as a resource provider, not the exclusive manager of mitigation efforts. The assistance of the private sector, volunteers from outside trained responders such as police, firefighters, trained medical and rescue personnel, etc. and the military should not have to undergo a FEMA clearance process.