Unraveling The Mess at FEMA

Earlier this week, we implored the press to move beyond depictions of the surface horrors and get to the root of what caused the massive response failures to Hurricane Katrina on all levels of government. Even as we spoke, some very good reporters were at work on exactly that.

In recent days, the nation’s major papers have begun shining a spotlight on budget cutbacks and green leadership at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Story by story, they have painted a forceful picture of how and why FEMA let down Katrina’s victims when the government was needed most.

On Monday, in its story “Why FEMA Was Missing in Action,” the Los Angeles Times reported that the “government’s stumbling response to the storm” revealed that FEMA “has been hobbled by cutbacks and a bureaucratic downgrading”:

[I]n the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, FEMA lost its Cabinet-level status as it was folded into the giant new Department of Homeland Security. And in recent years it has suffered budget cuts, the elimination or reduction of key programs and an exodus of experienced staffers. …

Three out of every four dollars the agency provides in local preparedness and first-responder grants go to terrorism-related activities, even though a recent Government Accountability Office report quotes local officials as saying what they really need is money to prepare for natural disasters and accidents.

“They’ve taken emergency management away from the emergency managers,” complained Morrie Goodman, who was FEMA’s chief spokesman during the Clinton administration. “These operations are being run by people who are amateurs at what they are doing.”

President Clinton’s FEMA director, James Lee Witt, focused the agency on disaster prevention programs, the Times reported, but under the Bush administration “many of Witt’s prevention programs were reduced or cut entirely. After Sept. 11, former FEMA officials and outside authorities said, Washington’s attention turned to terrorism to the exclusion of almost anything else.”

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal chipped in with an extensive report that examined, in broad strokes, “the government’s delayed understanding of the scope of the damage” and its slow response. The first of many problems the Journal listed was the decision to make FEMA “just one piece of a new, gargantuan Department of Homeland Security, which altered FEMA’s mission and watered down its powers.” Lost in the shuffle of the restructuring was a significant part of FEMA’s traditional mission and clout: “FEMA lost control of more than $800 million in preparedness grants since 2003, congressional figures show. State emergency managers and congressional investigators say the overwhelming focus for grants is now on fighting terrorism.”

Since the restructuring, morale at FEMA has dropped, the Journal reported, with several key jobs left unfilled — the director of FEMA’s Atlanta region (which covers much of the hurricane-prone Southeast) is currently the acting chief operating officer in Washington, for example. Most damningly, the Journal led off with the “tough message” that five state emergency managers (including some from Mississippi and Alabama) had brought to a Washington meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and top deputies only two weeks before. “We told them straight out that they were weakening emergency management with potentially disastrous consequences,” said Alaska’s Dave Liebersbach.

On Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune brought into stark focus the personnel problems the Times and the Journal had hinted at, writing that “Top officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency have strong political connections to President Bush, but they also share at least one other trait: They had little or no experience in disaster management before landing in top FEMA posts.”

Besides FEMA’s leader, Michael Brown, who “had virtually no experience in disaster management” beforehand, the Tribune noted that the official biography of Brown’s top aide didn’t list disaster relief experience and that the department’s No. 3 official “also does not have emergency management experience.” Both officials “worked in the White House’s Office of National Advance Operations, which arranges Bush’s travel and scripts his appearances,” the Tribune added, contrasting their resumes with the crisp credentials of top FEMA managers during the last years of the Clinton administration.

Also on Wednesday, Dick Polman, a longtime national political correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer, pointed out that candidate Bush had praised Witt’s FEMA leadership during the first presidential debate in 2000; then, Polman noted, “FEMA was downsized, its budget slashed, and its autonomy erased, a prime target for the Bush conservatives who wanted smaller government in Washington.” Since 2001, he noted, Bush and the GOP-led Congress eliminated FEMA’s national flood-prevention program, and “privatized many of FEMA’s basic functions.”

Today, a New York Times editorial slammed the FEMA leadership, writing that “It’s not really all that surprising that the officials who run FEMA are stressing that all-important emergency response function called the public relations campaign. As it turns out, that’s all they really have experience doing.” The president made FEMA “a dumping ground for unqualified cronies,” the Times said, when “What America needs are federal disaster relief people who actually know something about disaster relief.”

The Times was able to write such a lid-tight condemnation based precisely on the work of its Los Angeles counterpart, plus that done in Chicago and Philadelphia — strong stories that unearthed an important thread of the Katrina disaster.

And this afternoon, we learned that FEMA chief Michael Brown had been relieved of his duties on the ground in Louisiana and replaced by a Coast Guard admiral.

There’s still plenty to investigate about what went wrong in the days before and after Katrina did its damage, and we trust that state and local officials will find their own culpability examined, just as FEMA’s has been. From what we know so far, it’s a grim story, and there aren’t a lot of heroes.

The search for accountability has only just begun; but it’s been a very good beginning.

Edward B. Colby

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.