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Thursday, Sept. 8, 2005 01:40 am

The disaster that shouldn't have been

Warnings about FEMA were sounded soon after Bush put a political appointee in charge

A body is left off to the side outside the New Orleans Convention Center on Sept. 1, where thousands of people waited for days for assistance

With outrage still building over the excruciatingly inadequate federal response to Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is facing a political storm of its own. The question of how FEMA — the government agency most responsible for containing the damage of such catastrophes — seemed to have abandoned hundreds of thousands of suffering Americans now seems destined for multiple government investigations.

Tracing back through recent developments in federal emergency policy, there were some clear warning signs that FEMA has been set up to falter. A year ago, during the wave of hurricanes and floods that battered communities across the South, seven newsweeklies led by the Independent Weekly of Durham, N.C., collaborated on an investigation of FEMA's approach to natural disasters under the Bush administration. The report showed that FEMA, which had during the 1990s won widespread praise for advancing its approach to natural disasters, was in a severe backslide [Jon Elliston, "A disaster waiting to happen," Sept. 30, 2004].

Emergency managers from both inside and outside of government said in the story that President George W. Bush has drained FEMA's natural disaster programs in a series of policy and budget changes, including:

The appointment of political cronies rather than disaster experts to top posts. The current director of FEMA, former attorney Michael Brown, took on the job from Bush's first FEMA director, Joe Allbaugh — the president's former chief of staff from Texas, who had no significant experience in managing disasters. "Our professional staff are being systematically replaced by politically connected novices and contractors," Pleasant Mann, a 16-year FEMA veteran and president of the agency's government employees' union, warned Congress last summer.

A push to privatize some of the agency's key functions. William Waugh, a disaster expert at Georgia State University who has written training programs for FEMA, warned that outsourcing had not served natural disaster programs well. "It's part of a widespread problem of government contracting out capabilities," he says. "Pretty soon, governments can't do things because they've given up those capabilities to the private sector."

A philosophical shift by the Bush administration away from federal responsibility. As we wrote, "In a May 15, 2001, appearance before a Senate appropriations subcommittee, Allbaugh signaled that the new, stripped-down approach would be applied at FEMA as well. "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management," he said. "Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level."

Cuts to key "disaster mitigation" programs. Such programs, which have proven to be both cost-effective and in some cases life-saving, included FEMA's Project Impact, a model mitigation program created in 1997 but ended by the White House in 2001. Federal funding of post-disaster mitigation efforts designed to protect people and property from the next disaster has been cut in half. Communities across the country now must compete for pre-disaster mitigation dollars. Last year, Eileen Loh Harrist, a writer for the New Orleans newspaper Gambit Weekly, reported that Jefferson Parish, La., (which has now been hit by Katrina) had seen FEMA reject no less than three of its recent requests for flood-mitigation grants.

FEMA was folded into the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. "Before, we reported straight to the White House, and now we've got this elaborate bureaucracy on top of us," Mann said last year. "And a lot of this bureaucracy doesn't think what we're doing is that important, because terrorism isn't our number one." In testimony to Congress in March 2004, James Lee Witt, who directed FEMA during the agency's heyday in the 1990s, said he was "extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded" because of the merger of FEMA into the DHS.

A year later, these concerns have only intensified. After the devastation of Katrina, and amid the mounting evidence that the federal government has done far too little, far too late to assist the storm's victims, some of the country's most experienced emergency managers have stepped forward to sound an alarm.

"We are so much less than what we were in 2000," said an unnamed "senior FEMA official" in a Sept. 1 Washington Post article. Another FEMA veteran said, "It's such an irony I hate to say it, but we have less capability today than we did on Sept. 11."

Eric Tolbert, a former North Carolina state emergency director who was a high-ranking FEMA official from 2002 until February of this year, told a Knight-Ridder reporter that the disastrous disaster response in the Gulf Coast was a product of FEMA's misplaced priorities.

"What you're seeing is revealing weaknesses in the state, local and federal levels," he said in the midst of New Orleans' weeklong wait for substantial assistance.

"All three levels have been weakened. They've been weakened by diversion into terrorism."

And in an interview with Salon.com, Tolbert drew a direct connection between FEMA's recent breakdown and the calamity unfolding in that city.

In the summer of 2004, he said, the agency ran a "tabletop exercise" in Baton Rouge as part of an effort to craft a new plan for dealing with a serious hurricane strike in the New Orleans area. But then, the money dried up.

"Unfortunately," Tolbert said, "we were not able to finish the plan."

Also from Jon Elliston

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