- The Washington Times - Monday, September 12, 2005

Don’t blame FEMA’s great professional, dedicated and unselfish employees for what happened in New Orleans. FEMA did not fail in the early response because of these great Americans. They were totally focused on responding to the tragedy and saving lives. Nor did FEMA fail because of an over-emphasis on terrorism prevention. FEMA did fail because of a lack of effective leadership and its refusal to adapt to the new realities of the post-September 11 world.

Two years ago in a lecture at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, I told students that FEMA was not capable of adequately responding to a major hurricane, let alone a catastrophic terrorist attack. My comments were based on an assessment that morale at FEMA was then the worst since the agency was created. The very people the nation depended on to help out during our time of greatest need were being demoralized by an indifferent, inexperienced leadership that neither understood emergency management nor had the skills to ensure the agency had the resources to meet its all-hazard mission.

Since my lecture, things have only gotten worse. Seasoned emergency managers began retiring in droves, frustrated by an inaccessible leadership at the top that has neither understood what FEMA is all about, nor has been able to effectively fight for FEMA’s resource requirements inside the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of Management and Budget. When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf region, FEMA’s most seasoned battlefield commanders were no longer working at the agency.

Many mistakes were made in New Orleans at every level of government. The City of New Orleans failed to fully implement its evacuation plans for those who had no automobile or had special needs. The State of Louisiana was unable to effectively support local law enforcement and quell unrest in the city. But, arguably, the biggest mistakes were made by the director of FEMA. The president and Secretary Michael Chertoff could only act on the information that was made available to them.

In the past dozen years, I have participated in several New Orleans hurricane exercises. All of those exercises utilized a slow-moving category 3 scenario because the Army Corps of Engineers said the levee system was only built to withstand a category 3 hurricane. That alone would still result in several feet of water in large portions of the city. A category 4 or 5 would most probably breach the levees and create catastrophic flooding, putting a premium on early and complete evacuation.

The director of the National Hurricane Center has stated that his office made it clear to federal, state and local emergency management that the levee system could fail when Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Knowing that, the federal government had an obligation to be more proactive than it was on the front end of Hurricane Katrina, including providing strong professional technical advice to timid state and local officials.

The administration had put the mechanisms in place for success. In January, the final National Response Plan (NRP) was approved by every department and agency of the federal government. The FEMA director failed to use the NRP from the beginning of this incident. Why the catastrophic nature of Hurricane Katrina was not recognized before landfall when the National Weather Service said it would be above a category 3 is inconceivable. The FEMA director knew the levees would most likely be breached. Or maybe he didn’t. The old hands were no longer there to tell him.

Had the FEMA director recommended the federal government declare an “incident of national significance” before landfall, as is permitted in the plan, when it was clear Katrina would be a catastrophic hurricane, the NRP Catastrophic Incident Annex could have been triggered. That would have permitted FEMA to stage massive levels of aid in the region, including buses, even if the governor had not yet requested specific help. By failing to expeditiously utilize the established NRP mechanisms, FEMA was left to implement its traditional response and await state requests. The FEMA director did not embrace the DHS post-September 11 mechanisms but instead followed his own ad hoc approach that left FEMA unprepared.

The problem at FEMA is not a structural problem. FEMA did not fail because it is now part of the Department of Homeland Security. Making FEMA an independent agency again would only further complicate the nation’s ability to shape the agency into a 21st century, forward-leaning, truly all-hazard response agency. But the next director of FEMA must understand emergency management. He must appreciate his people. He must listen to his state and local partners. And, most importantly, he must understand FEMA’s role in the post-September 11 world.

Those who think we have overemphasized terrorism in the wake of September 11, should be concerned with a knee-jerk reaction to Katrina. What we need is balance. We must be prepared to respond to both terrorism and natural disasters. The FEMA I know is capable of rising to the occasion and accomplishing both missions.

Acts of God will never destroy our great country. But that is exactly what radical Islamic terrorists want to do. We must never forget that fact. No doubt, the terrorists have been emboldened by what they have seen on TV in the last several days.

Mike Walker is a former deputy director of FEMA and former acting secretary of the Army.

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