Hurricane Sandy has again focused the country on how we prepare, respond and recover from disasters. That it comes at the end of a pivotal presidential campaign, with all the twists, turns and accusations serves to highlight how different the candidates and parties are in how these issues are addressed.
Once again, the normally obscure Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is at the forefront of our national debate. This is the agency that is responsible for coordinating the federal preparedness, response and recovery to disasters. There is much to be learned in how different presidential administrations have treated FEMA and how the effectiveness of the agency has been improved and degraded at different times.
But first, it’s important to know a bit about FEMA’s history and mission. FEMA was originally created to respond to nuclear attack. It was a product of the Cold War and later fell into irrelevance.
During the Reagan years, FEMA was filled with political patronage appointments and garnered little attention. And during the first Bush Administration, things were much the same. The real change for FEMA came during the Clinton Administration, when political appointees were replaced by emergency operations and preparedness professionals. The appointment of James Lee Witt and the elevation of FEMA to a cabinet level signaled that FEMA was going to be an important part of the federal safety net.
It was at this time that I was a staffer with California U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. My area of responsibility in the office happened to be disaster response and recovery. And then the Northridge Earthquake hit. I spent the next year working with victims of the disaster to help them navigate the recovery process and learned the FEMA process extremely well. I met with James Lee Witt and his staff and later helped with the training of new staff coming up.
Over the next few years I worked with FEMA on fires in southern California and flooding on the Russian River. Each time I was impressed by the professionalism of the staff. FEMA can’t and should not always say yes to requests, but having pros in charge makes a big difference.
Here’s the thing: Large-scale multiple jurisdiction disasters happen. And it looks like they're happening with more frequency than in the past. And having a federal coordinated response with temporary housing assistance, low interest loans for businesses, mitigation money and a multi-state network of temporary employees to help with all this is really important. And states can’t do it on their own. Just ask New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
And here’s something for all of us to think about: Federal disaster relief is not intended to make us whole. Its purpose is to get us through the immediate aftermath and stabilize us so we can use the other methods of recovery. Now is a good time to check out your homeowner or renter insurance policy, make sure your home is structurally sound and bolted to the foundation and get connected. Seattle has a website where you can learn more.
The other piece of preparing and responding to disasters is all about mitigation. FEMA used to have a program called Project Impact, which provided training and funding to localities on how to mitigate the impacts of earthquakes, fires, floods and other disasters. In our neck of the woods that means preparing for earthquakes by strengthening buildings, bridges and roads. It also means replacing the viaduct and repairing our seawall.
In 2001, then FEMA director Joe Allbaugh addressed a meeting of emergency management professionals in Seattle. He said, as a country, we spend far too much money on disaster mitigation. This speech was given as the Bush Administration was canceling Project Impact. The date of the speech was February 28, 2001.
February 28th was also the day of the Nisqually Earthquake. Project Impact had been a pet project of James Lee Witt in his tenure as FEMA director under Clinton and mitigation had finally been given a boost within FEMA, but it was not to last. FEMA was downgraded from being a cabinet-level agency and Allbaugh would eventually pick his successor — the vastly underqualified Michael Brown, a Bush supporter who came to the position as a former lawyer for the International Arabian Horse Association.
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