Thursday, November 22, 2012

FEMA, Another Federal Disaster

After the less than stellar performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during the hurricane Sandy natural disaster, Americans may well wonder if any federal agency can be counted on to successfully accomplish its designated mission efficiently.  Particularly when we also read that the U.S. Postal Service is expecting a net loss of $15.9 billion this year due to declining mail volume and associate revenue.  We learned almost simultaneously that the Federal Housing Authority, another self-funding agency, is expected to lose $16.8 billion and will probably require a bailout.

Coupled these facts with the knowledge that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are broke, Medicare and Medicaid are close to bankrupt and numerous other federal agencies suffer from redundancy, are mismanaged (e.g. the Government Services Administration), have appreciable inefficiencies and also suffer from funding issues justifies the public's cynicism. Thus citizens begin to legitimately question the federal government’s ability to successfully accomplish even simple tasks on time and on budget through many of its agencies.

FEMA, however, was a department enacted with a high purpose…to address the twin concerns of civil defense and disaster mitigation.  Specifically its two core missions are, (1) to improve the federal government’s ability to survive a foreign attack (ergo a nuclear war), and (2) to assist state and local authorities in responding to natural disasters.  From its inception FEMA has been a study in evolution of purpose, organization, usage and politicization.  FEMA has often attracted negative attention during natural disasters…attention that triggered in-depth investigations, initiated mission adjustments, caused revisions in organizational structure and better strategies and tactics to improve its responsiveness.  Each change has seemingly exacerbated FEMA’s disaster resolution problems.  The changes have also heightened its politicization, its use of patronage as a reward and the distribution of “pork-barrel” funds to cronies of the sitting president. 

FEMA was created in March of 1979 by executive order under President Carter to bring order to a complicated array of overlapping jurisdictions in essentially three governmental fiefdoms, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, along with the executive branch.  In theory the objective was to rationalize organizational structure and streamline the decision making to enhance implementation of the two core missions.  Prior to FEMA’s formation natural disasters were dealt with in a one-off manner with legislation enacted to deal with each individual crisis up and until roughly 1930. 

In 1932 President Hoover developed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC).  The RFC was initially designed to lend money to banks to energize economic activity and to distribute federal funds (often outright grants) in the wake of disasters.  From this tiny beginning the RFC grew and matured into the agency now known as FEMA.  With President Carter’s order FEMA became an independent agency until 2003.  After its birth in 1979 the agency has even responded to man-made problems such as the dumping of toxic waste into Love Canal in Niagara Falls, NY and the Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania.

Yet major natural disasters beginning with hurricane Andrew in 1992, the South Florida Hurricanes of 2004, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 exposed material deficiencies in FEMA’s response capabilities.  In fairness a number of the criticisms cited were a function of a misinterpretation of FEMA’s charter and mission.  FEMA’s core mission was to “assist local and state agencies” in responding to natural disasters…not to function as the primary or secondary responder.  Nevertheless, FEMA clearly was not structured to deal with mega disasters and an in-depth review after Katrina in 2005 exposed appreciable shortcomings; shortcomings that had already been revealed in at least three assessments subsequent to hurricane Andrew in 1992.  These deficiencies included:
  • Fast reaction forces which could be quickly added to the trained personnel already on staff in each of FEMA’s 11 preparedness districts throughout the country that respond to area disasters.
  • No workable budget.  FEMA’s budget allocates 60% of the available funds to each state equally, not on a risk basis, therefore leaving a funding amount too small to deal with a specific major problem in any jurisdiction.
  • No ability or technology to communicate within and/or outside the area of destruction during or immediately after an incident.
  • Lack of clear, predetermined lines of communication between local and state governments and the specific individuals representing each of the responding entities.
  • No ability and necessary equipment/supplies to preposition in advance of a pending disaster…water, generators, fuel, food, blankets, temporary shelter etc…and, if you will a super group deployable into ground zero of the natural disaster to enhance the district team’s supply capabilities.
  • No clear standards for interacting with the victims of a tragedy and a tested methodology for setting realistic expectations regarding future actions and interactions.
During 2003 FEMA was incorporated into the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS), therefore losing its independence and adding complexity.  Its organizational structure became so complicated that only a PhD in structural engineering could understand the lines of authority.  Additionally, FEMA never received the funding necessary to prepare for catastrophic disasters and satisfy its daunting responsibility. 

At the inception of the DHS, Michael Chertoff reviewed the entire department and surfaced the reality that preparing for, protecting against, and managing disasters was scattered all over the new department.  And that DHS countered FEMA’s legal purpose which boiled down to a one-stop shop for natural disaster relief and civil defense.  Nevertheless the good intentioned review essentially did not repair many of the defects the assessment identified and then Katrina occurred.

Prior to the founding of DHS, FEMA had begun to morph into a highly politicized entity since it retained the ability to grant large sums of funding (read pork) to state and local governments (and cronies), and its staffing was largely by appointment at both the federal and district levels.  Funding to states and local entities followed the number of disaster declarations cited by the administration in power.  During the G.H.W. Bush years an average of 43.5 declarations per year were made.  Under W.J. Clinton the number grew to 89.5 per year, then to 129.6 per year under G.W. Bush and to an incredible 153.0 per year (thru 2011) under B.H. Obama.  In addition, from March 2009 to October 2011 FEMA employment grew from 4,400 to 7,474 an increase of 70%.  (The Obama record is astonishing since within this time-frame no terrorist attacks occurred, no Category 2 or higher hurricanes happened, and no earthquake with a force of 6.0 or more on the Richter Scale struck.  FEMA during the same period seemed to have been utilized as a tool or mechanism to build reelection support.) 

After the founding of DHS and its detailed reviews of FEMA, after the Katrina FEMA collapse and many more reviews and adjustments, after Irene, a $20 billion disaster, and further FEMA investigations, FEMA has shown little or no improvement in dealing with the Sandy recovery.  Events suggest that two conclusions can be drawn…first, the inadequacies described above and identified pre-Katrina remain embedded in the organization, and second, the agency has become a corrupt, pork-barrel delivery vehicle for the administration in power.  FEMA remains incapable of satisfying its core missions.  Americans have every right to be cynical but also have an obligation to demand the elimination of agencies and/or departments that can no longer perform as designed and promised.  A possible solution would be a return to one-off funding of each disaster by Congress as they occur.