Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 4, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

WHAT WENT WRONG....I don't have much doubt that there's plenty of blame to go around on the subject of Hurricane Katrina, but the plain truth is that a disaster like this will always overwhelm state and local authorities no matter what. That's why we have FEMA. In the Washington Post, Susan Glasser and Josh White tell the story of what happened:

The roots of last week's failures will be examined for weeks and months to come, but early assessments point to a troubled Department of Homeland Security that is still in the midst of a bureaucratic transition, a "work in progress," as [former DHS official Suzanne] Mencer put it. Some current and former officials argued that as it worked to focus on counterterrorism, the department has diminished the government's ability to respond in a nuts-and-bolts way to disasters in general, and failed to focus enough on threats posed by hurricanes and other natural disasters in particular. From an independent Cabinet-level agency, FEMA has become an underfunded, isolated piece of the vast DHS, yet it is still charged with leading the government's response to disaster.

"It's such an irony I hate to say it, but we have less capability today than we did on September 11," said a veteran FEMA official involved in the hurricane response. "We are so much less than what we were in 2000," added another senior FEMA official. "We've lost a lot of what we were able to do then."

...."The federal system that was perfected in the '90s has been deconstructed," said [former FEMA chief of staff Jane] Bullock. Citing a study that found that the United States now spends $180 million a year to fend off natural hazards vs. $20 billion annually against terrorism, Bullock said, "FEMA has been marginalized....There is one focus and the focus is on terrorism."

....On the Friday before Katrina hit, when it was already a Category 2 hurricane rapidly gathering force in the Gulf, a veteran FEMA employee arrived at the newly activated Washington headquarters for the storm. Inside, there was surprisingly little action. "It was like nobody's turning the key to start the engine," the official recalled.

....DHS did not ask the U.S. military to assist in pre-hurricane evacuation efforts, despite well-known estimates that a major hurricane would cause levees in New Orleans to fail. In an interview, the general charged with operations for the military's Northern Command said such a request to help with the evacuation "did not come our way."

Here's the part I don't get and I mean I genuinely don't get it, regardless of who's at fault here. Everyone suggests that part of the problem is that FEMA's focus was redirected toward terrorism after 9/11. In and of itself, this is neither surprising nor wrong. But the requirements to respond to a major terrorist attack on a U.S. city are largely identical to the requirements for responding to a hurricane like Katrina: food, medicine, maintenance of order, evacuation, and temporary shelter. So what are FEMA's plans for responding to, say, a large scale chemical weapon attack on Chicago? They'd have less warning than they did with Katrina and the requirements for aid would be largely similar. What would they do?

Kevin Drum 12:59 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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