In 2005, the only thing that crumbled faster than the levees during Hurricane Katrina was the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) reputation. Widely regarded as a competently managed federal government powerhouse under President Bill Clinton, it was reduced to the object of national ridicule in Katrina's aftermath -- the poster child of federal ineptitude amid the chaos.
One reason for the collapse was the politicization of FEMA's leadership. "FEMA was taken apart quickly under the Bush administration," says Eric Holdeman, the former head of emergency management for King County, Wash. When President George W. Bush first took office, he appointed Joe Allbaugh, who ran his election campaign in 2000, to head FEMA; then came Michael Brown, whose prime experience for the job was serving as the Arabian Horse Association's judges and stewards commissioner.
But leadership wasn't the only problem. Having been folded into the new and bulging U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) not long before hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, the agency had, by all accounts, become a shell of its former self. Its budget suffered devastating cuts, and topnotch staff defected in droves. "The agency lost a lot of institutional knowledge and good people who decided that FEMA wasn't a good place to be," says Holdeman, who is now a national consultant on emergency management and response. "It was becoming a backwater in the larger federal emergency management scheme."
But FEMA is gradually improving. Following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, efforts were made to rekindle the agency's glory days. First, Congress passed legislation requiring that an experienced, professional emergency management official lead the agency, which remained lodged within the DHS. The new administrator, Craig Fugate, fits the bill: He started his career on emergency management's front lines, serving as a volunteer firefighter in Alachua County, Fla. He worked his way up, eventually becoming director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management. There, he was at the center of a dozen presidentially declared disasters (mostly hurricanes, including Ivan and Katrina) and managed $4.5 billion in federal disaster assistance. Agency staffing also was upgraded -- many former state and local emergency officials now hold top agency positions.
And during Hurricane Ike in 2008, which killed more than 100 people and triggered the largest evacuation in Texas history, the agency's response was considered uneven, but not hapless. The simple question now is whether FEMA is working to complete its comeback as a respected, competent federal agency. Is it capable of responding nimbly to disasters and working well with state and local partners?
For many state and local officials in the emergency-response trenches, Fugate's appointment is a positive sign. "We couldn't be more pleased with the senior leadership team at FEMA," says Mike Womack, director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. "It would have been very difficult to find someone more capable or a better fit than Craig Fugate."
But the quick answer is that it might be too soon to tell whether FEMA is coming back strong. "They really haven't been whacked yet," says Peter Beering, an Indianapolis-based consultant on terrorism and emergency management and response. "They really haven't been tested."
One fundamental issue that undergirds FEMA's comeback is the federalization of an emergency management response -- and the public's expectations of who should be in charge. In an ideal world, an effective emergency management structure's foundation is a combination of well developed local response capacity -- with some help from the state -- along with long-range efforts to mitigate each disaster's impact. This includes looking at local zoning, planning and building codes to ensure that they feed into and enhance emergency needs and mitigation.
Over the past two decades, however, there has been a growing sense that the federal government is the chief fixer-upper in a disaster's aftermath. "The general public thinks the federal government will ride in like the cavalry," Beering says, "and that's not how it works." The BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, he points out, is a stark example of that impression. "Everyone has this expectation that the president is going to come in there and fix the thing. Well, he's a community organizer, not a plumber."
Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that the public -- and many public officials -- actually do regard the president as "plumber in chief," and FEMA as his handy tool kit. This expectation flies in the face of the real world. Among veteran emergency management experts, it's understood that local responders will be on their own for the first 48 to 72 hours after a major disaster. In fact, FEMA's Fugate has taken pains to describe those directly impacted by disasters as "survivors" not "victims," and emphasizes that they are a key recovery resource in the disaster's immediate aftermath. At locals' requests, the state may be asked for assistance, or the governor's office may request a formal presidential disaster declaration, triggering FEMA's involvement. But federal involvement was never meant to be an assumed proposition.
While state, local and federal governments work out various response and recovery protocols, one fact remains: Every serious disaster presents different challenges. "There's a saying among emergency management experts: When you've been to one disaster, you've been to one disaster," says David Miller, Iowa's head of emergency management. That's another way of saying that every disaster has its own special quirks that may require different intergovernmental responsibilities and relationships.
Miller says his state was painfully and powerfully reminded of this in spring 2008 when Iowa experienced the range of natural disasters that can befall one place. The weekend before Memorial Day, an EF5 tornado -- the highest intensity on the rating scale -- ripped a 43-mile path of devastation across three counties, killing eight people and nearly wiping out the small town of Parkersburg. Unfortunately the EF5 was just one in a record-setting rampage of tornadoes in Iowa that year. But that wasn't all: The next weekend it started to rain across eastern Iowa. The rain was almost continuous throughout the middle of the summer and caused severe flooding that didn't subside until August.
"So you have a fast-moving disaster where rescue and recovery happen fairly quickly," Miller says. "And then a slow-moving disaster where you're doing both for a long time."
In the case of the flooding, Miller saw the side of FEMA that represents some institutional progress, namely mechanisms created in the wake of Katrina aimed at longer-range recovery issues. FEMA officials helped communities develop and pursue "long-range recovery goals," Miller says, which included helping communities track down resources outside of FEMA's direct control. "Those mechanisms were used effectively in Iowa," says Miller, a 20-year veteran of emergency management. "We gained some real benefit from those."
In Iowa City, for example, the agency identified specific federal, non-FEMA funding sources for very specific projects. FEMA personnel then worked with city officials on preparing grant applications, which led to a $25 million U.S. Department of Commerce grant for the city's top two recovery priorities: relocating its wastewater treatment facility and elevating Dubuque Street, one of the city's key thoroughfares.
FEMA's shift to focus more on long-term recovery is one of the encouraging signs related to the agency's comeback, but even in that capacity, the agency can still sometimes be maddeningly bureaucratic, Holdeman says.
In the wake of serious disasters, FEMA will initially deploy a cadre of "disaster assistance reservists" to help local officials take a first cut at establishing long-range recovery strategies and needs. "They come in for two weeks and meet with local players," Holdeman says. "And then they leave, and someone else comes in and looks at paperwork and says, 'Oh no, that's not right.' It's very frustrating for local officials, and it's one of the reasons that some disasters drag as long as they do."
Reports from recent floods in Connecticut appear to confirm that observation. According to one highly placed state official, FEMA was terrific when it came to the initial response. "They were all warm and fuzzy at first, going door to door to talk to people," she says. "But as far as I can tell, that was the end of their being helpful." The complaints about the next level of assistance started with the forms that had to be filled out -- people found them ridiculously complicated and few could fill them out correctly. "Everyone seems to have a story where FEMA circled back and said, 'Oops, there is something you missed here, do not pass go,'" the Connecticut official says, adding that there were also inexplicable instances where FEMA would give a town money to fix a road but not a bridge. Local officials, she says, "started to get really flummoxed."
Another issue that's arisen regarding long-range recovery is the extent to which FEMA has in the wake of a disaster been able to compel other federal agencies to provide technical assistance and money. According to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report, FEMA's Long-Term Community Recovery Branch -- which is responsible for knitting together all potential players who might be involved in recovery, including everyone from the American Red Cross to the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- is doing a decent job, but could stand improvement in a couple key areas. The one that tops the list: The recovery branch must have more power to compel other federal agencies to come to the recovery table and work with state and local officials.
While FEMA may or may not get more power to push federal partners to cooperate in recovery efforts, one very encouraging trend has occurred on the agency's bureaucracy front. Under President Barack Obama, FEMA regional directors are winning back authority to make rapid, ground-level decisions -- latitude that was largely stripped away during the George W. Bush era.
That sort of regional-level authority is important, given that the whole emergency management response and recovery game is by its very nature complicated and messy and not given to top-down, one-size-fits-all responses. Dealing with a familiar federal official helps immensely when it comes to communication and coordination around disasters.
It's a shift in responsibility and authority that's been welcomed by virtually everyone in the emergency management field. "Administrator Fugate understands much better than his predecessor the needs of local and state officials, and is working diligently to cascade some authority to his regional folks," says James Bassham, director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.
In fact, that new line of authority proved itself successful this spring when widespread flooding added up to the worst natural disaster in Tennessee history. As the weather picture darkened in the state, Bassham says he made contact with FEMA Region IV officials in Atlanta. Within three or four hours, a FEMA liaison arrived to work with Bassham and his team in their Emergency Operations Center.
By the time flooding from the rain storms was at its height, there were 1,000 FEMA staff working with state and local officials across Tennessee. "The bottom line is that we've had no issues at all with FEMA during rescue and recovery," Bassham says. "If you compare our experience this year with the agency to our experience during Katrina when we hosted evacuees, this is significantly better."