FEMA Falls into Array

We haven't heard a lot about botched disaster response this year. There's a reason for that.
November 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

There was one small but notable fact about the two serious natural disasters that hit the country this summer: The Federal Emergency Management Agency scarcely received any media coverage as events unfolded and recovery was organized and executed.

That's not because FEMA was absent. It's because the agency was quietly doing its job. The floods that devastated parts of the upper Midwest in June were FEMA's first really big test since Hurricane Katrina, and by all accounts, the agency acquitted itself well.

There was some local grumbling after Hurricane Ike struck the Texas coast in September -- Houston Mayor Bill White complained about a lack of ice and water -- but that died down as Homeland Security czar Michael Chertoff went to Texas to assure state and local officials that his top people were on the case.

And they were. Shortly after Ike hit, FEMA joined the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Texas Governor Rick Perry, in announcing an 18-month, $118 million housing assistance program for those displaced by the storm.

What's gotten better? The simplest analysis -- and the one we've heard most -- is that the federal agency states and localities love to hate finally is being run by people who know something about responding to major disasters.

But it's not quite that simple. Tracing the improvement solely to changes in the FEMA bureaucracy lets state and local officials off the hook a little too easily when it comes to their own part in emergency preparedness.

Bill Leighty, an emergency-response specialist who was called into Louisiana when Katrina struck, says many of the problems of that storm response stemmed from the state's uncertainty about just what it needed to ask the federal government to provide. FEMA is very literal in its response to requests. "When you ask for 800 cots," says Leighty, "you get 800 cots. No blankets, no pillows and no tents, but you'll get the cots." When then-Governor Kathleen Blanco called on FEMA to "send everything," it was only a little more helpful than telling the feds to send nothing.

In other words, working with FEMA is a two-way street. The most positive consequence of the Katrina catastrophe is not that federal officials have polished their game. It's that state and local officials are learning the absolute necessity of pre-disaster planning. A huge part of that is establishing relationships with all potential players -- local, state and federal. When that's done, intergovernmental communication is less likely to be garbled and the players are more likely to know precisely what their role, large or small, needs to be.

That sort of planning and those relationships were on full display during a different disaster last year -- one that also brought little public attention to FEMA, even though the agency played a positive role in the response.

Within hours after the I-35W highway bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, virtually the entire country knew about it. What hardly anyone knew was that the remarkably adept governmental response resulted in large part from a FEMA-sponsored readiness exercise held a few months earlier in its training center at Mt. Weather, Virginia. That exercise specifically included dealing with collapsed structures.

As Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak points out, the bridge failure was a complex intergovernmental event. A federally owned bridge maintained by the state fell into a river that was partially under county jurisdiction but located within a single city. The fundamental elements were all in place, in other words, for a disastrously disjointed response. That didn't happen. The first call for help came in at 6:05 p.m. By 7:55 p.m. all the survivors -- scores of them -- had been rescued.

The lesson here isn't that FEMA came sweeping in to assist the locals during their time of need. The lesson is that everybody concerned did their jobs. Unless state and local officials express their needs clearly, and unless they are willing to put in the time and effort to work with FEMA on pre-planning, they shouldn't complain quite so loudly in the wake of a disaster when FEMA appears to be out to lunch.