Thursday, April 27, 2006

The FEMA Folly

Abolish FEMA? That would be a neat trick. For starters, does anyone who comments on FEMA actually know what it does and what it doesn't do?
The report, to be released to key senators today and to the public next week, makes 86 recommendations that would undo major changes made when President Bush and Congress launched the department in 2003, and would reverse parts of a reorganization ordered by Secretary Michael Chertoff last summer. It stops short of restoring FEMA to independent, Cabinet-level status, as many in Congress and former agency directors want, but would promote its chief to confer directly with the president in a crisis, according to a summary released to news organizations.

The 800-plus-page report, "Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared," incorporates many findings by earlier House and White House investigations but goes further in recommending structural changes in how all levels of government -- especially the Homeland Security Department -- respond to catastrophes.

It would replace FEMA with a new National Preparedness and Response Authority whose head would report to the secretary but serve as the president's top adviser for national emergency management, akin to the military role served by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It would reunify disaster preparedness and response activities that Chertoff decoupled, and restore grant-making authority taken away by Congress in redefining a stronger national preparedness system with regional coordinators, a larger role for the National Guard and the Defense Department and more money for training, planning and exercises.

"We have concluded that FEMA is in shambles and beyond repair, and that it should be abolished," Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in a written statement released by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which held 22 hearings, interviewed more than 320 people and reviewed more than 838,000 pages of documents.
Has anyone undertaken a serious look at whether DHS has actually improved matters? Every time we turn around, there are problems with border control, airport screening, and even personnel issues.

Abolishing the agency and reconstituting it within DHS doesn't solve the problem. It only shuffles the deck.

FEMA stands for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It's job is management during emergencies. And it is a bureaucracy - which means that it has its own way of doing things. Which would help explain why it worked passably well before it was folded into the DHS after the 9/11 attacks on the belief that FEMA should work under Homeland Security instead of as a separate and distinct entity. Just A Bump in the Beltway also makes this point. The problem is that it you can't simply pull FEMA out from DHS.

However, that's an incomplete analysis. FEMA didn't work particularly well when it was on its own. Its response time has been oft criticized. And it doesn't have any resources that are truly its own. It operates by marshalling resources from other parts of the government to respond to a crisis. That's why Congress thought it would be better to put FEMA in DHS in the first place.

This doesn't address administrative failures by putting people who are 1) incompetent; or 2) incapable of dealing with crises into such a crucial position of national importance.

Of course, these problems are similar to those found in big cities - where the Office of Emergency Management tries to coordinate between various state and local agencies during a crisis and that didn't work out particularly well during 9/11. Lack of communications played a great role in that.

And it continues to play a big role in FEMA's failures as well. If the people in the field are unable or incapable of relaying crucial information to those who need it, then it doesn't matter how quickly the agency can get things moving in tests under perfect conditions.

So, to fix FEMA - or its replacement - one has to start with the basics and not just cursory technological fixes:
1) Fix information gathering to enable decision makers the full picture. NOAA/NWS needs to be able to send a direct feed to the new emergency management agency. The DoD must be able to relay its assets to the same. Ditto for state and local agencies. In other words - better intra- and inter-agency communication, complete with timely reports before, during, and after crises. Also, regular monitoring of media outlets to detect trouble.

2) Prepositioned supplies - this means having secured facilities with prepositioned equipment and materials for use in disaster response. This can and should include the use of disaster response ships that are capable of reaching much of the US coastal communities in a short period of time to produce water, electricity, and help reconstruct basic infrastructure.

3) Qualified people in key positions - no more using the agency for rewarding cronies or for political advantage. It must be a professional cadre of people dedicated to making sure that they can respond to any crisis anywhere in the US within 60 hours (that's 2.5 days). The current standard is response in 72 hours.

4) Learn from private entity response - WalMart and other big box stores were able to restore their supply chains far quicker than the government was able to respond. Learn from the example and adopt technologies enabling quicker response times. In different parts of the country, the threats and potential disasters differ, so each region should have its resources tailored. However, hurricanes tend to cause bridge and road failures, communications failures, and other infrastructure damage. Making sure that resources can be marshalled quicker should be a key priority.

5) The human factor - helping families get back on their feet. Above all else, the government response must address housing and basic needs for affected individuals. And the best time to address these problems is before they're actually a problem. That means that the various state and local jurisdictions have to reassess and implement new and improved building codes and zoning to deal with hurricanes and other severe weather and geological hazards. Having a bunch of trailers is one thing, but having trailers that are incapable of being used because they're not hurricane-proof presents problems of its own. If improved building codes and zoning requirements means that fewer people are displaced in the first place, the national response can not only be improved, but will be more efficient.

However, fixing building codes and zoning doesn't address the problems that those displaced by Katrina and the other 2005 hurricanes face. They need suitable housing and basic services restored - and the best way that can happen is that state and local governments improve their ability to condemn damaged properties and enable owners to begin rebuilding. If that means increasing the number of inspectors, this is where FEMA can come into play - to manage and get those inspectors where they're needed.

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