Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 12, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

FEMA'S FAILURES....Among our conservative friends, there still appears to be a considerable amount of denial over the question of whether (and how) FEMA failed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, many Bush administration apologists seem not to even understand FEMA's role, suggesting that the bulk of the failures belong at the state and local levels.

Needless to say, state and local authorities share plenty of blame for the slow and confused response to Katrina. My guess and it's just a guess at this point is that when the final story gets written, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is going to end up looking pretty bad and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco is going to end up looking bruised but basically OK. Time will tell on that front.

But much of FEMA's story is already written. After all, disasters like Katrina are the entire reason for FEMA's existence. It's nice to have them around for run-of-the-mill emergencies, of course, but it's essential to have them around for mega-disasters like Katrina, which are always going to overwhelm the capabilities of local authorities. In fact, it's exactly the kind of event where you want to bring to bear the full power of the federal government. As Jane Bullock, who spent 22 years at FEMA under presidents of both parties pointed out, FEMA needs to take charge in a situation like this. "The moment the president declared a federal disaster, it became a federal responsibility."

So how did FEMA fail? As a first stab, I'm going to collect excerpts from this weekend's collection of Katrina stories, as well as notes from a few other sources. A few of these reports will probably turn out to be wrong or exaggerated, but I think it's useful to have at least a tentative collection of FEMA's failures all in one place right now, especially since many of them seem to be rooted directly in policy decisions made over the past four years and it's policy decisions, more than individual failures, for which administrations deserve to be held accountable. The complete list is below the fold.

Pre-Katrina FEMA Coverage

  1. 1993-2000: Under James Lee Witt, FEMA is transformed from a backwater of political patronage into a widely praised model of efficient and rapid emergency response.

  2. January 2001: George Bush appoints Joe Allbaugh as director of FEMA. Allbaugh, who ran Bush's presidential campaign, has no previous experience in disaster management.

  3. May 2001: Allbaugh testifies that he believes federal involvement in disaster planning should be scaled back: "Many are concerned that Federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective State and local risk management. Expectations of when the Federal Government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters. Federal assistance needs to supplement, not supplant, State and local efforts."

  4. December 2002: Allbaugh announces he is leaving FEMA. He is succeeded by his deputy and former college friend, Michael Brown, who also has no previous experience in disaster management. Brown's patent unsuitability for the job is documented here, here, and here.

  5. March 2003: FEMA is downgraded from a cabinet level position and folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Its mission is refocused on fighting acts of terrorism.

  6. 2003: Under its new organization chart within DHS, FEMA's preparation and planning functions are reassigned to a new Office of Preparedness and Response. FEMA will henceforth focus only on response and recovery.

  7. 2003-2005: Disaster professionals among FEMA's top staff are gradually replaced by political appointees with no relevant experience. See here and here.

  8. July 2004: During an exercise dubbed "Hurricane Pam," FEMA assures everyone that they can do all the heavy lifting necessary if the big one hits: "The Federal Emergency Management Agency promised the moon and the stars. They promised to have 1,000,000 bottles of water per day coming into affected areas within 48 hours. They promised massive prestaging with water, ice, medical supplies and generators. Anything that was needed, they would have either in place as the storm hit or ready to move in immediately after....FEMA promised more than they could deliver. They cut off deeper, perhaps more meaningful discussion and planning by handing out empty promises."


Post-Katrina Coverage

New York Times, "Breakdowns Marked Path From Hurricane to Anarchy"

  1. "The agency dispatched only 7 of its 28 urban search and rescue teams to the area before the storm hit and sent no workers at all into New Orleans until after the hurricane passed on Monday, Aug. 29."

  2. "Rather than initiate relief efforts buses, food, troops, diesel fuel, rescue boats the agency waited for specific requests from state and local officials."

  3. "Hundreds of firefighters, who responded to a nationwide call for help in the disaster, were held by the federal agency in Atlanta for days of training on community relations and sexual harassment before being sent on to the devastated area."

  4. "FEMA would not let the trucks unload," Mr. Vines said in an interview. "The drivers were stuck for several days on the side of the road about 10 miles from Camp Beauregard. FEMA said we had to have a 'tasker number.' What in the world is a tasker number? I have no idea. It's just paperwork, and it's ridiculous."


Washington Post, "The Steady Buildup to a City's Chaos"

  1. August 26: "As the headquarters staff came in, there was a strange sense of inaction, as if 'nobody's turning the key to start the engine,' said one team leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. For his group, Friday was a day to sit around wondering, 'Why aren't we treating this as a bigger emergency? Why aren't we doing anything?'"

  2. August 28: "FEMA had already stockpiled for immediate distribution 2.7 million liters of water, 1.3 million meals ready to eat and 17 million pounds of ice, a Department of Homeland Security official said. But Louisiana received a relatively small portion of the supplies; for example, Alabama got more than five times as much water for distribution. 'It was what they would move for a normal hurricane business as usual versus a superstorm,' concluded Mark Ghilarducci, a former FEMA official now working as a consultant for Blanco."

  3. "Around midnight, at the last of the day's many conference calls, local officials ticked off their final requests for FEMA and the state. Maestri specifically asked for medical units, mortuary units, ice, water, power and National Guard troops. 'We laid it all out,' he recalled. 'And then we sat here for five days waiting. Nothing!'"

  4. August 29: "'We were all watching the evacuation,' Maj. Gen. Richard Rowe, Northcom's top operations officer, recalled. 'We knew that it would be among the worst storms ever to hit the United States.' But on Monday, the only request the U.S. military received from FEMA was for a half-dozen helicopters."

  5. "Ebbert said he told FEMA that night that the city would need buses to evacuate 30,000 people. 'It just took a long time,' he said."

  6. August 30: "Col. Jeff Smith, Louisiana's emergency preparedness chief, grew frustrated at FEMA's inability to send buses to move people out....'They have a tracking system and they'd say: "We sent 349." But we didn't see them.'"

  7. Item deleted. This entry originally referred to a statement by William Lokey, FEMA's coordinator on the ground, but a review of the video shows that the statement was actually made by Louisiana Senator David Vitter.

  8. "At the noon videoconference, several participants said, Louisiana's Smith heatedly demanded federal help. Where were the buses? At first, Smith recalled, he had asked for 450 buses, then 150 more, then an additional 500; by the end of the day, none had arrived. The first evacuees did not arrive at the Astrodome until 10 p.m. Wednesday on a school bus commandeered by a resourceful 20-year-old."

  9. September 1: "On Thursday, after FEMA took over the evacuation, aviation director Roy A. Williams complained that 'we are packed with evacuees and the planes are not being loaded and there are gaps of two or three hours when no planes are arriving.' Eventually, he started fielding 'calls from airlines saying, "Well, we are being told by FEMA that you don't need any planes." And of course we need planes. I had thousands of people on the concourses.'"


Los Angeles Times, "Confusion at Crunch Time"

  1. "The Federal Emergency Management Agency, responsible for supervising relief and rescue operations, failed to position adequate equipment to carry out the dual assignments. FEMA was especially short of helicopters from the outset. It was forced to concentrate on rescue missions and gave short shrift to ferrying supplies to trapped evacuees."

  2. "More than 50 civilian aircraft responding to separate requests for evacuations from hospitals and other agencies swarmed to the area a day after Katrina hit, but FEMA blocked their efforts."

  3. "Telephones and radios failed everywhere, complicating efforts to monitor field conditions and coordinate response. FEMA officials were caught by surprise."

  4. "Despite pre-positioning of some manpower and supplies, FEMA had failed to provide sufficient emergency aircraft, boats and vehicles to get residents out of New Orleans and to deliver enough food, water and medical supplies to those who were stranded."

  5. "On the day the levees failed, the FEMA chief issued a news release urging fire and emergency services departments outside the area 'not to respond' to calls for help from counties and states affected by the hurricane 'without being requested and lawfully dispatched by state and local authorities under mutual aid agreements.'"

  6. "National Public Radio asked Chertoff about the thousands of people camped around New Orleans' Convention Center who said no food or supplies had arrived. Chertoff said that sounded to him like nothing more than a rumor. 'I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who do not have food and water,' he said."


Time, "Places Where the System Broke Down"

  1. "While people were dying in New Orleans, the U.S.S. Bataan steamed offshore, its six operating rooms, beds for 600 patients and most of its 1,200 sailors idle.

  2. Foreign nations responding to urgent calls from Washington readied rescue supplies, then were told to stand by for days until FEMA could figure out what to do with them."

  3. "Last Thursday, as the Red Cross began distributing its own debit cards, thousands stood for hours in the 93 (degree) heat outside the Astrodome in Houston for FEMA cards that never came."

Kevin Drum 1:57 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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