Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 25, 2008

FIXING FEMA.... Before George W. Bush took office, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was a model of efficiency and effectiveness. For reasons that have never made any sense, the president decided to undermine the agency, strip its leadership of cabinet-level status, and stick it with unqualified leadership.

FEMA went from being one of the more impressive federal agencies to a national joke. There was some talk a couple of years ago of Congress scraping the agency altogether and starting over.

The Washington Post reports today that the beleaguered emergency-management department is poised to get "a facelift under the Obama administration."

First off, the likely plan is to break off the agency from the Department of Homeland Security, a move that by itself would help restore the pride that folks at FEMA felt when it was an independent agency.

Second, there's increasing talk that former director James Lee Witt, who took over the then-troubled agency at the start of the Clinton administration and left it eight years later with a much-enhanced reputation, is coming back from retirement to run FEMA for six months to a year, to whip it into shape.

Now, there's some question as to whether Witt's disaster recovery firm overbilled Louisiana as part of its post-Katrina work, which would no doubt be explored in detail during confirmation hearings.

What's beyond question, however, is that an overhaul of FEMA under Obama would be most welcome. A "Human Capital Survey" of federal employees in 2002 found that FEMA ranked dead last -- a key warning, before Hurricane Katrina, that there was a real problem at the agency. Now, of course, FEMA is under the Department of Homeland Security, but in the most recent survey of federal employees, FEMA ranks 211th out of 222 in departmental subunits.

Making the FEMA director cabinet-level again would be a good first step. Giving it real leadership and functionality wouldn't hurt, either.

Steve Benen 8:50 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (34)

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Comments

"reasons that have never made sense...went from being one of the more impressive agencies to a national joke..."

I'm pretty sure that was the point no? Undermine every government program that was effective and made a difference in peoples lives so that the services they provided could be privatized more easily.

Paulson's latest handout comes on the heels of Obama talking about massive infrastructure spending. It's no coincidence. The infrastructure was allowed to deteriorate so that the rebuilding would be done by private hand picked Republican firms.

Posted by: grinning cat on November 25, 2008 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

This is straight out of Richard Clarke's book "Your Government Failed You". He has a number of suggestions of what to do with DHS and the Intelligence Community and it will be interesting to see how many the Obama Administration decides to take up.

Posted by: Lance on November 25, 2008 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

The first step (which I trust Obama to do right) is appointing someone WHO KNOWS WHAT THE HELL THEY ARE DOING.

This may not be DoD or State Department with it's long history and "importance" but competence matters and FEMA before Clinton was the place where cronies could get a resume-padding political appointment reward without the pesky need for an appropriate resume. Obama I trust will actually appoint someone with some experience.

Posted by: ET on November 25, 2008 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

Richard Clarke is I guy I would like to see tapped for a position in the Obama administration. He has, obviously the best perspective on how doing things wrong sets you up for failure.

Posted by: John R on November 25, 2008 at 9:08 AM | PERMALINK

To be fair, FEMA is doing pretty well right now.
Responses to recent disasters have been much better. David Paulison has been a pretty good director. The first imperative for Obama is don't screw things up. Just put a professional in charge who knows FEMA, knows emergency management, is a good manager and has the ear of the president.

Posted by: AaronK on November 25, 2008 at 9:15 AM | PERMALINK

And those recent disasters would be what? It's not hard to do better than terrible.

Posted by: Gandalf on November 25, 2008 at 9:23 AM | PERMALINK

Weren't the responses to Ike absolutely terrible? Reports were that the good job they did was in keeping a media blackout enforced.

Posted by: grinning cat on November 25, 2008 at 9:25 AM | PERMALINK

I'm not convinced that DHS is a great idea, but surely if it's going to continue to exist, FEMA is a logical part of Homeland Security?

It would seem to make sense to be able to coordinate disaster response (FEMA) to disaster prevention (the various intel agencies).

Posted by: Morfydd on November 25, 2008 at 9:28 AM | PERMALINK

Axe Homeland Security. Send half the money to the states. The airports are just heinous places any more--all spectacle and abuse.

Posted by: Sparko on November 25, 2008 at 9:44 AM | PERMALINK

FEMA is ahead of America’s replacement economy. The disasters are way under reported. Be real America, spanning the spectrum from the white collar disasters in poor to reckless money management of corporate entities to the natural disasters of severe weather situations is in either respect a huge responsibility to address nature and the environment issues along with Business. More over an integral part of America’s security and continuum is a reflection of all this stuff. All known and understood by the intellectuals radicals like Osama Bin Laden. Here, from what I know this Bin Laden guy is a Harvard educated fellow. America we taught Bin Laden how to launder money. Just watch the Republican Neo-Cons.


This is funny watching MSNBC having a round table discussion making the argument very solid that the risk involved in this credit crunch is beyond anything these banks are able back. In other words the risk is infinitely large? Or we could say the risk that these MBA trained money managers are taking is a huge risk then when found out poor Judgement is made these investment vehicles are so big it is going to fail through out that unique system. Such as AIG, for me the money that was used to bail out AIG could have just restarted a new company with better people who are expert given a chance rather than those that failed.

So, then they go to the Federal Reserve System to resolve the issue called a bail out. The electorate pays the price of huge mistakes instantly and more than not secretly without any public venting. Till now. Ho, Ho, Ho. This is funny and it has been going on for years perhaps decades with all the complicity of mainstream media just now saying how in the world did this happen?

Yet like MSNBC has the very perpetrators such as Andrea Mitchell wife of former Federal Reserve Chairman Allen Greenspan that was leading the chariot of the money monopoly give away for decades. Riding in advance of calamity, here, Madam Mitchell obviously, riding gaily through time as the media deliberately suppressed any hint of corruption, or as I call it a largely political market of profiteering along with Bush and Company, leads America to the gates of money hell.

The Jekyll island group, that was formed, now called the Federal Reserve, is showing all concerned that this system, the Federal Reserve, is the fault and the best magnanimity based corporate corruption machine ever dreamed in what they called a free economy. When in fact this whole banking scheme simply taps the citizen’s potential for the few special elite, those who call a war a noble cause. But those in this money power domain have only Satan’s Luck, and because of people like you and me it is showing, this transparency of the Internet is driving Satan’s luck sour.

The Arabs know this and have enjoyed its loop wholes, and political greed for decades very patiently turning the system, and those in the system in the favor of Allah. What is interesting is the courts handing down a guilty verdict of on the hugest Islamic organization in America as laundering money for terror but has yet been brought forward in the media today. I have to say Michael Savage, even though more than not I think he is a smuck, Dr. S redeemed himself slightly for me and did bring this to my attention last night on hate radio.

There is a very powerful suppression in media and with all the trimmings friendship and connections to Bush and Company which does cry out as treason explicitly implied by Dr. Savage. It maybe with regret that I agree, but, here, now, Obama has to fight these forces. Can Obama do it? Obama says yes we can. Its about time America shows the interconnections with these Arabs, their money, the terror financing, and long time relations too many deeply seated politicals have that likely will be worse than embarrassing and deeply more in corruption and nontraditional to the Constitutional experiment. Islam does not want see America succeed. Other wise Allah fails and that is not going to happen for them. Its funny The prince of terror the Arab Prince Al-Walid bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud finely appeared on the news to see what he looked like.

This guy, the prince has been fooling around in a huge list of American corporations for decades. That includes City group. With the aid of congress Prince Al-Walid bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud has been able to keep under the radar of the public for decades through bribes and pay offs. These Arabs are suggested to have huge arrays of off shore tax exempt front companies that been swindling money from America for decades. And just now our great system finds them of interest to broadcast and talk about. I laugh very; very much at all these analysis of like how could we miss this? Sheesh.

For me, the reality is this man should have been placed in shackles in an orange suit before congress while America seized Arab oil fields here Arabia declared in a war as a new territory of America, because of box cutters and a small band of Arabs, yep!. Gitmo should have been that same territory all of Arabia, here, justified the action of 911. String barbed wire all around it. Then, water boarding would not be a problem at all then over there. But everything turned ass backwards because of Bush and company with their magnanimity of greed. Of course you see for me the anger is infinite at this time all the while trying not to be cursive.


Posted by: Megalomania on November 25, 2008 at 9:45 AM | PERMALINK

when it talks about a "departmental" rating "out of 222" I sure hope that is government wide and that there are not 222 separate units within Homeland Security. That would explain a lot about how poorly it seems to work.

Posted by: zeitgeist on November 25, 2008 at 9:52 AM | PERMALINK

"For reasons that have never made any sense, the president decided to undermine the agency, strip its leadership of cabinet-level status, and stick it with unqualified leadership." - Mr. Benen

This was a showpiece "screw you" to the country courtesy of the wisdom of Grover Norquist.

The gov't wasn't getting small enough fast enough to drown in a bathtub, so Katrina was a stellar opportunity to demonstrate that folks were going to have to learn to help their own damn selves and quit looking for any help from the gov't which desperately needed to refocus on doing what it could to help the rich.

Every gesture toward providing some kind of Federal assistance was completely for show and was like pulling teeth from the worlds biggest weenie with no pain killer. They didn't want to give anything and figured everyone would get the message quickly and become resigned to their new status as completely screwed and helpless. If churches and family couldn't deal with it then adios. And especially, "shut up about it please".

They underestimated the outrage but they still learned only to do what was necessary to keep the world off of their backs. They had no interest in creating an agency that worked well because that's what agencies are supposed to do.

Blatantly f**king something up turned into providing the bare minimum of expertise and provisions to avoid catching flack.

Grover Norquist, one of the heroes of the Shrubwit revolution.

Posted by: burro on November 25, 2008 at 10:03 AM | PERMALINK

I'm not convinced that DHS is a great idea, but surely if it's going to continue to exist, FEMA is a logical part of Homeland Security? It would seem to make sense to be able to coordinate disaster response (FEMA) to disaster prevention (the various intel agencies).

No, because 99% of the time the disasters FEMA will be responding to will be natural disasters (floods, earthquakes, wildfires, etc.) rather than terrorist attacks. Putting FEMA into DHS only served to "militarize" what should have been a primarily civilian agency.

Posted by: Stefan on November 25, 2008 at 10:13 AM | PERMALINK

"For reasons that have never made any sense, the president decided to undermine the agency, strip its leadership of cabinet-level status, and stick it with unqualified leadership."

It makes perfect sense, if we realize that Bush's goal was to destroy this country in a myriad of ways.

Posted by: impeachcheneythenbush on November 25, 2008 at 10:30 AM | PERMALINK

Well said, burro.

If there were justice in this world, Grover Norquist would be stripped of every worldly possesion & dropped off in the most remote area of Somalia. He could then revel in his government-free paradise.

Posted by: BuzzMon on November 25, 2008 at 10:31 AM | PERMALINK

No, because 99% of the time the disasters FEMA will be responding to will be natural disasters (floods, earthquakes, wildfires, etc.) rather than terrorist attacks. Putting FEMA into DHS only served to "militarize" what should have been a primarily civilian agency.
Posted by: Stefan

In theory those natural disasters fall in DHS' portfolio, as well they should. Not much difference between nuke attack on San Francisco or destruction of the Mississippi levees in New Orleans and an earthquake or hurricane. DHS has the authority to declare an Incident of National Significance (should have been done for Katrina) and mobilize a bunch of resources.

It just needs to be run better.

Posted by: SJRSM on November 25, 2008 at 10:32 AM | PERMALINK

"If it's too big to fail it's to big to exist."

I would add, "If it's too big to fail it's too big to work effectively, and failure is guaranteed." and "Any organization with 222 subunits is too big to work at all."

Posted by: Bill H on November 25, 2008 at 10:54 AM | PERMALINK

Not much difference between nuke attack on San Francisco or destruction of the Mississippi levees in New Orleans and an earthquake or hurricane.

I disagree. The responses are totally different, and for the record, we train for different scenarios for that very purpose when we do mass casualty drills.

For many years I was sworn to step under FEMAs umbrella at the beep of a pager, and grab my ruck and go. Putting us under DHS just served to militarize a civilian agency and the added layers exponentially decreased efficiency of response and service delivery.

And the minimum response requirements on local authorities is just stupid. Guess who else is in the path of that hurricane/wildfire/earthquake/flood? The families of the first responders who now have to prove they are manning up before the feds will do their due. Fucking idiots...

Posted by: Blue Girl on November 25, 2008 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

Not much difference between nuke attack on San Francisco or destruction of the Mississippi levees in New Orleans and an earthquake or hurricane. - SJRSM

A statement too stupid for a response.

Posted by: Winkandanod on November 25, 2008 at 11:07 AM | PERMALINK

A statement too stupid for a response.
Posted by: Winkandanod

So you think breaching levees by blowing up a freighter next to them resulting in New Orleans being submerged, and breaching levees by overwash from a hurricane resulting in New Orleans being submerged...two completely different things, eh?

DHS is supposed to..."In the event of a terrorist attack, natural disaster or other large-scale emergency, the Department of Homeland Security will provide a coordinated, comprehensive federal response and mount a swift and effective recovery effort."

So your argument is that we should segment natural disasters into one organization and terrorist ones into another? What if it is ambiguous? A refinery blows up or chemical factory unloads toxic waste, not sure what happened, human error or terror attack? Or the bad guys take advantage of flooding along the Missouri (FEMA) to blow up a few levees (DHS), who gets that response?

Posted by: SJRSM on November 25, 2008 at 11:32 AM | PERMALINK

The point of emergency management is that it should be able to respond to any emergency regardless of cause, whether that be levees breaking or a terrorist attack. The broad outlines of disaster response are essentially the same, though the details may differ.

Bush's gutting of FEMA was the one of the most frightening and unnecessary aspects of his administration. During the Clinton years, Witt refocused much of the emergency management attention to disaster prevention and made a great many inroads into connecting disaster prevention with wider issues like sustainable development, the environment, and global warming. Bush undermined a great deal of this by solely focusing on anti-terrorism. Employees complained that flood insurance monies were being siphoned off to pay for other programs (I don't know if this is true or not). He put his cronies in charge. It is like he wanted the agency and the country to fail. But what would be the purpose?

Posted by: Taritac on November 25, 2008 at 11:53 AM | PERMALINK

Others have indicated the reasons for screwing FEMA.

In their posts, they didn't add in the part about WHO gets the most help from FEMA. Those without means.

They're likelier to be Democrats.
Republicans have fabulous insurance.

Funny, that describes Medicare and Medicaid too.
And social security.

A great deal of Bush's targeted incompetence is very useful to his "base".


Posted by: toowearyforoutrage on November 25, 2008 at 12:16 PM | PERMALINK
I'm not convinced that DHS is a great idea, but surely if it's going to continue to exist, FEMA is a logical part of Homeland Security?

If you could walk me through the "logic" there, I might be able to answer the question.
Otherwise, uh - no.
If FEMA is needed because of a terrorist incident, DHS has already failed.
Why on earth would we put a demonstrated failure in charge of responding to the results of the failure?
Even if only for PR purposes, it should be separated - why would you trust or cooperate with an agency that is partly responsible for your emergency?(yeah, yeah, Blackwater coercion yadda yadda)

Posted by: kenga on November 25, 2008 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

So your argument is that we should segment natural disasters into one organization and terrorist ones into another?

Well, yes, because, as I pointed out above, in 99.99% of the cases it's going to be a natural disaster and not a terrorist attack, and therefore it makes more sense to plan for what's very likely to happen (and does in fact happen every day) and not for what's not very likely to happen.

What if it is ambiguous? A refinery blows up or chemical factory unloads toxic waste, not sure what happened, human error or terror attack? Or the bad guys take advantage of flooding along the Missouri (FEMA) to blow up a few levees (DHS), who gets that response?

In the unlikely event of the latter scenarios, FEMA is generally perfectly able to handle the disaster response. DHS can then handle the security response, but even though they may be related, they are not the same thing. Best to let FEMA get on with what it does best without being distracted and lost inside a larger security bureacracy. Putting FEMA inside DHS inevitably meant that its mission was diverted from that of disaster response to that of security.

Posted by: Stefan on November 25, 2008 at 12:36 PM | PERMALINK

So your argument is that we should segment natural disasters into one organization and terrorist ones into another? What if it is ambiguous? A refinery blows up or chemical factory unloads toxic waste, not sure what happened, human error or terror attack? Or the bad guys take advantage of flooding along the Missouri (FEMA) to blow up a few levees (DHS), who gets that response?

Also, we do the same thing locally by having both a fire department and a police department. We don't make the fire department a subset of the police department on the off-chance that a factory fire may turn out to be arson or a terrorist attack.

Posted by: Stefan on November 25, 2008 at 12:41 PM | PERMALINK

So your argument is that we should segment natural disasters into one organization and terrorist ones into another?

Nope. You have FEMA to respond to every disaster, natural or man made, and you bring in support as appropriate.

Posted by: Blue Girl on November 25, 2008 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

Even with separating the two agencies, there are still major issues to confront. Unfortunately for all, Bush chose to use DHS as a political mechanism with which to project his ideology and executive power capriciously rather than as a real tool to protect American citizens. He used its creation to strip almost 200,000 employees of union rights, strip out civil rights protections for LBGT employees, punish competent career employees who'd started under Clinton, abuse terror alerts to distract from news embarrassing to his administration, and provide a haven for underperforming, inept contributors who literally got their degrees from online diploma mills.

As one might imagine, such an extraordinary abuse of a governmental agency has lead to DHS having the worst employee morale of any federal agency.

Then again, Bush has successfully come close to wrecking a number of crucial federal agencies and entities during his tenure as ridiculous asshole-in-chief: DHS, DOJ, EPA, FEMA, the State Department, the military, and on and on.

It will take decades to undo the damage he's caused to the government. I understand that rank stupidity exists, but I will never understand how that ever could have translated into voting for this disastrous moron.

Posted by: trex on November 25, 2008 at 12:45 PM | PERMALINK

I understand that rank stupidity exists, but I will never understand how that ever could have translated into voting for this disastrous moron.

As time goes on, we are going to find fewer and fewer people willing to admit that they ever voted for Bush in 2004. It'll eventually be as if he was elected by magic!

Posted by: Stefan on November 25, 2008 at 12:50 PM | PERMALINK

I certainly hope that James Lee Witt can be cleared of whatever "charges" he has against him and is reassigned to FEMA again. The agency really seemed to prosper under his management in the 1990's.

And, as for Grover Norquist, perhaps a fitting end would have been for him to have drowned - soomehow - in New Orleans in 2005.

Posted by: phoebes-in-santa fe on November 25, 2008 at 12:58 PM | PERMALINK

I certainly hope that James Lee Witt can be cleared of whatever "charges" he has against him and is reassigned to FEMA again.

I gave Democrats their talking points on this.

Posted by: Blue Girl on November 25, 2008 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

Under the presidency of George HW Bush, FEMA was NOT a well-functioning unit. This is because the head of FEMA was a political appointment, a crony from New Hampshire of White House Chief of Staff John Sununu (his name escapes me at the moment). So using FEMA as a political plum job was something our current president learned from his dad.

Posted by: Tomb on November 25, 2008 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

In 1997 Grand Forks ND and East Grand Forks, MN experienced what was called 100 year flood. Over 90% of Grand Forks and 100% of East Grand were evacuated with roughly 60000 people displaced. At the height of the flood 4 city blocks burned down well our firefighters stood in 4 feet of freezing water trying to hook hoses up to hydrants they could only grope for. Because FEMA was a well run and very competent federal agency under James Lee Witt the two cities have come back bigger, better and more beautiful than ever. I for one hope that FEMA is taken out of HLS and is once again a stand alone cabinet level agency and that even if it is just for a year James Lee Witt takes over and gets it back to what it was in 1997 when this city needed FEMA so badly.

Posted by: redrover on November 25, 2008 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK
In theory those natural disasters fall in DHS' portfolio, as well they should.

Debatable. As is the idea that there is a coherent "Homeland Security" portfolio.

Not much difference between nuke attack on San Francisco or destruction of the Mississippi levees in New Orleans and an earthquake or hurricane.

Well, yeah, actually there is a pretty massive difference. Ignoring the differences in effects and kinds of responses necessary considering both as completely isolated incidents (which are pretty huge to start with), in the latter case you have a planned external attack in which any response must be coordinated on the assumption that there will be deliberate follow-up, attempt to exploit the resulting situation, and deliberate, external attempts to sabotage relief and recovery efforts. This requires a very different kind of effort as part of the response which is much more within the purview of an agency tasked with the Defense of the American homeland and its security against the threats of invasion or insurrection.

DHS has the authority to declare an Incident of National Significance (should have been done for Katrina) and mobilize a bunch of resources.

FEMA had the authority to do that (actually, I think it may have required a presidential declaration, but following that to coordinate the mobilization of resources) prior to being part of DHS. There's no need it has to be subordinate to Homeland Security for it to be able to do that. Clearly, a response to an deliberate act may require one or more security-related agencies to coordinate with FEMA -- but then, that's going to often require coordination outside of the same cabinet-level department if FEMA remains within DHS, since in almost any imaginable serious attack, DoD and DoJ resources will be needed, as well. The creation of DHS was largely a showpiece act of using the highly-visible act of bureaucratic subordination to give the appearance of improving coordination when the real coordination that needs improved doesn't require, and isn't helped, by that kind of bureaucratic subordination and, furthermore, is often going to now need to cross yet another level of bureaucratic division because of the creation of DHS.

Posted by: cmdicely on November 25, 2008 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

It will take more than getting FEMA out from under DHS to restore order to the chaos that is FEMA. FEMA's problems are rooted deep within the core of its current FEMA leadership. FEMA continues to demonstrate an inability to employ basic Core Values and lacks accountability. FEMA knew that occupants of FEMA housing were suffering and did nothing to protect their victims from the dangers of formaldehyde. Without accountability FEMA will continue to protect its own self-interest and not the survivors that they were tasked to protect. New Leadership must be transparent, in touch with basic Core Values, enable local and have no fear of accountability.

Posted by: Jesse Fineran on November 26, 2008 at 8:55 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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