Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 31, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON?....Back in 1995, Danny Franklin wrote a piece in the Washington Monthly about the travails of FEMA, an agency that had an abominable reputation for poor planning and bureaucratic incompetence in the 80s and early 90s:

FEMA was, in the words of former advisory board member and defense analyst Lawrence Korb, a "political dumping ground," a backwater reserved for political contributors or friends with no experience in emergency management.

....Because FEMA had 10 times the proportion of political appointees of most other government agencies, the poorly chosen Bush [Sr.] appointees had a profound effect on the performance of the agency. Sam Jones, the mayor of Franklin, Louisiana, says he was shocked to find that the damage assessors sent to his town a week after Hurricane Andrew had no disaster experience whatsoever. "They were political appointees, members of county Republican parties hired on an as-needed basis....They were terribly inexperienced."

In 1992 the GAO recommended sweeping changes in FEMA's mission and organization, and the newly elected Bill Clinton took the GAO's recommendations seriously. The first thing he did was appoint as FEMA's director James Lee Witt, a former construction company owner who had worked with Clinton in Arkansas as director of the state Office of Emergency Services, where he earned high marks for his management of three presidential disaster declarations, including two major floods in 1990 and 1991.

Witt resurrected FEMA's reputation and turned it into a highly respected agency, but via email, Franklin wonders if the widely reported problems regarding federal response to Hurricane Katrina are related to George Bush's rather more patronage minded approach to staffing critical positions:

The difficulties of coordination seem to indicate we've returned to the bad old days where the FEMA administrator position is given away on the basis of political favor, rather than hard experience. The whole story of FEMA's response to Katrina has yet to be written, but it has always troubled me that Bush has appointed, in succession, his 2000 campaign manager and an Oklahoma lawyer whose only emergency management experience prior to joining FEMA was as an assistant city manager.

I hope Franklin is wrong about this, but after hearing one too many stories about unqualified political appointees taking over scientific, technical, and reconstruction positions in the Bush administration, it's hard not to wonder if FEMA hasn't suffered under his administration as well.

UPDATE: More here from Eric Holdeman in the Washington Post:

The advent of the Bush administration in January 2001 signaled the beginning of the end for FEMA. The newly appointed leadership of the agency showed little interest in its work or in the missions pursued by the departed [James Lee] Witt. Then came the Sept. 11 attacks and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Soon FEMA was being absorbed into the "homeland security borg."

This year it was announced that FEMA is to "officially" lose the disaster preparedness function that it has had since its creation. The move is a death blow to an agency that was already on life support. In fact, FEMA employees have been directed not to become involved in disaster preparedness functions, since a new directorate (yet to be established) will have that mission.

Read the whole thing.

Kevin Drum 3:19 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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