Hurricanes expose FEMA woes

FEMA suffered from deterioration in relationships with local partners since Brown took over, resulting in lack of coordination and unpreparedness

By

 Updated:

The Bush administration demoted the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from a cabinet-level agency to a component of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), led by appointees who proved unprepared for the destructive 2005 hurricane season. After Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, emergency management took on a new importance in the federal government, and James Lee Witt, the director of FEMA during the Clinton administration, was widely credited with reinvigorating the troubled agency. Witt had previous experience in disaster management; Michael D. Brown, President George W. Bush’s pick for the job in 2003, did not, nor did other key members of FEMA’s top management after 2000. Under Brown, the federal agency’s connections with its state and local partners faded, undermining coordination on preparedness and response projects. When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, the response from DHS and FEMA was, by many accounts, slow and disorganized. Victims stranded in their houses drowned as the flood waters rose, and evacuees languished in the Louisiana Superdome. FEMA later drew sharp criticism from both the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Congress for its muddled chain of command. “A single individual directly responsible and accountable to the president must be designated to act as the central focal point to lead and coordinate the overall federal response in the event of a major catastrophe,” the GAO wrote in 2006. “Neither the DHS secretary nor any of his designees, such as the Principal Federal Official [Brown] filled this leadership role during Hurricane Katrina . . .” By September 2006, Brown had stepped down, but FEMA’s leadership continued to struggle to respond to victims’ needs for food, housing, and aid for reconstruction. Responses to subsequent hurricanes and to flooding this year in the Midwest have gone more smoothly, but some local and state officials are complaining still about the slow pace of FEMA's clean-up efforts.

Follow-up:
R. David Paulison, who has more than 35 years of experience in emergency management, was confirmed as the director of FEMA in 2006. DHS reorganized FEMA based on its interpretation of the 2007 Homeland Security Appropriations law. “This is not the FEMA of two years ago, as our response to recent disasters has demonstrated,” a FEMA spokeswoman told the Center. “As we move forward, we have a plan that lays out steps to continue this transformation.”