Hurricane Sandy and the importance of being FEMA

Hurricane Sandy hammers a wharf in Marblehead, MA. Credit: Brian R. Birke

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.

It’s always a surprise that an administration gives FEMA any attention at all, because it’s always been a bit of a stepchild. There was concern that the creation of the Department of Homeland Security after 911, and FEMA’s inclusion in that sprawling department, would make FEMA compete for funding with anti-terrorism resources and it would again be starved of resources to accomplish its mission. Fortunately, it looks like that didn’t happen, and Congress is supporting FEMA’s budget in a bipartisan manner.

Fast forward to Hurricane Katrina and FEMA’s performance there; an unqualified political appointee was told by President George W. Bush that he was doing “a heckuva job Brownie.” Never mind that he had zero disaster experience or that he hadn’t prepared at all for the looming disaster. The President wasn’t engaged, so why should we expect Brownie to be?

And now we will watch how the Obama administration responds to Hurricane Sandy: It is too soon to tell how well the administration will handle this disaster, but one thing is clear; the man at FEMA knows what he’s doing. Craig Fugate was hired in 2009, after serving as the Director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. His mantra is “Go Fast, Go Big, Go smart.”

There will be time enough to evaluate his performance, but one emergency response professional I spoke with was impressed with his focus on working with private sector retailers in making sure vital supplies were available and equipment was pre-positioned at strategic areas where the storm would hit.

The question now is, what would Mitt Romney do with FEMA if elected?

During the Republican primary Mitt Romney told CNN he would shift FEMA’s functions to the states or privatize it. "Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction," he said. "And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?"

Of course, he has now disavowed ever making those statements, even though they’re on videotape. "I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters," Romney said in a statement supplied by his campaign Wednesday. "As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission, while directing maximum resources to the first responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters."

Is anyone surprised by that? Who will he pick to lead the agency? Will they be professionals with experience in the field? The answers to these questions are important.

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