Are we ready? FEMA is an easy target; its four- letter acronym is often used as shorthand to convey all of Katrina’s failures. But FEMA is just one piece of the preparedness puzzle. The organization is relatively new by historical standards, having been created as an independent agency in 1979. Before that time, disaster-response activities were scattered amongst some 100 federal agencies. In 2003, FEMA was brought under the Department of Homeland Security. Regardless of the agency’s placement in the federal bureaucracy, there are fundamental misunderstandings of FEMA’s role and mission which drive false expectations by the public.
The federal government rarely becomes actively involved in responding to incidents. For example, if you are not feeling well, you may choose to visit the doctor’s office. If you are very sick, and do not have transportation, you may dial 911. But certainly you would not expect an ambulance emblazoned with “FEMA” to show up at your doorstep. This is clearly a responsibility of the local government. The story becomes a more complicated one when state and local resources are overwhelmed and there are not enough ambulances, for example, to evacuate all those who require medical transport. When Gustav came ashore, FEMA had pre-positioned hundreds of ambulances near the projected impact area. But even so, these ambulances were not FEMA ambulances either. They were ambulances under contract from private companies to be available to FEMA, so that they could be provided to supplement state and local resources.
So even if state and local officials request the federal government’s help, there are no “FEMA” ambulances, helicopters, and buses. FEMA coordinates amongst all levels of government, contracts with the private sector, and leverages personnel and resources from the federal government. Sometimes this system works well, as is the case with the greatly strengthened relationship between FEMA and the Department of Defense; other times not, such as when Louisiana’s pre-established contract for buses fell through as Gustav approached, forcing the state and FEMA to quickly consider other options. Thus, FEMA is only as strong as its weakest link, with “FEMA” failing if a contractor, or a local, state or federal agency, stumbles.
I witnessed the transformation of the organization since Katrina and attribute much to the vision (and ambition) of its capable leadership. Dave Paulison, a respected former fire chief and emergency manager, along with his deputy Harvey Johnson, a retired Coast Guard admiral, took the helm of an organization that was broken and demoralized. They sought jobs nobody wanted and made it their mission to succeed. They brought innovative thinking about tough problems facing the agency; sought 21st century technology; recruited respected professionals from the emergency management community; and strived to serve their federal, state and local stakeholders. Messrs. Paulison and Johnson even fought tough internal turf battles at DHS at the same time they battled public opinion post-Katrina. Today, FEMA is still growing, still innovating, still learning while it responds to a seemingly endless array of disasters. The American public seems to understand the federal government is better prepared today than it was at Katrina, and much of that credit is due to FEMA’s improvements. Even inside DHS, where there had been a rocky relationship between the agency and its parent organization long before Katrina struck, there is a newfound respect for FEMA.
Now with Hurricane Ike looming in Gulf waters, FEMA readies not just its own organization, but also is unifying the entire federal government for a common purpose - a rarity in Washington. I, for one, am glad this isn’t my father’s FEMA.
Daniel J. Kaniewski is former Special Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Senior Director for Response Policy at the White House.