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Federal Emergency Management Agency Fails

Jun 2, 2008
In the wake of a tragedy we are often left in a state of complete and utter shock. Especially in events where our homes are destroyed and our loves one separated from us, our minds are the furthest thing from rational or clear. The unfortunate part about this fact is that it is in times like these that a clear head is the most important thing we can have. When events such as these happen, it is our family, friends, and neighbors in our communities that often come to our aid, providing relief and support where needed. When disaster hits on a broader scale, however, and it affects entire cities, counties, and states, what happens then? Enter the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Since 1979, this organization's efforts have played vitals roles in the lives of millions of citizens who have fallen victim to natural disasters across the nation. With almost 30 years past, and five presidents overseeing this agency, it has undergone reorganization and changes aimed at making it a better responsive resource for the citizens of the United States in times of urgent need. Ironically enough, it is this reorganization, among many things, that have caused for this organization to fail at its primary task of responding efficiently and effectively in times of national crisis.

One of the worst disasters in American history is the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Almost eight hundred citizens died and over two hundred and fifty thousand were left homeless as a result of the earthquake and its resulting damage. (Kernell, p.77) In the aftermath of the earthquake federal and state government officials were unable to immediately communicate with San Francisco authorities regarding the damage and needed assistance. When word finally made it through, the disaster was on a scale nobody had ever seen. Mass looting and chaos eventually led the city's mayor and the state governor to request President Roosevelt for assistance. Roosevelt's response was to use the United States Military and the American Red Cross as well as private party support from across the country. (Kernell, p. 78-79) The aid of these institutions and people was dysfunctional and controversial, as no central direction was given for the enormous task of coordinating all rescues, relief and rebuilding efforts. The resulting lesson was that in times of crisis, local governments who are also often rendered inoperable, have a serious need for national support in most all aspects of response. Over the next sixty years, various measures were taken to implement programs and response plans into national government entities in preparation for another major disaster. Multiple organizations were setup to be responsive to specific aspects of need. (fema.gov, history 3/11) Although doing much better in comparison to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the federal government's involvement was still inefficient in disaster times. In 1979, the National Governor's Association urged President Jimmy Carter to centralize the leadership of the various federal organizations and programs involved in emergency response. (fema.gov, history 3/11) President Carter's response was Executive Order 12148. This order created the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and effectively consolidated the leadership of the Federal Insurance Administration, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program, the Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration activities from Housing and Urban Development. Additionally it would oversee army responsibilities transferred from the Defense Department's Defense Civil Preparedness Agency. (fema.gov history 3/11) FEMA's abilities were tested shortly after its creation with various smaller-scale situations and the agency's inception proved to be beneficial. Although kinks in the organization were still being worked out, a sense of order seemed to be brought to the local governments of areas fallen victim to disasters. (fema.gov, history 3/11). Approximately ten years after its creation, FEMA faced its first large-scale natural disaster, ironically enough, in San Francisco. "The 1989 San Francisco earthquake snapped sections of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The disaster triggered massive federal assistance and efficient disaster relief efforts, in stark contrast to the failures of volunteerism and state efforts so evident in 1906." (Kernell, p. 79) This tribute to efficiency and organization is largely as a result of FEMA and the efforts coordinated under its leadership and training. Only two months prior to the earthquake FEMA had conducted a training exercise for emergency response and government officials in relation to such an earthquake scenario. (Kernell, p 78). This is evidence of a successful direction of the organization shortly after its implementation and a far superior response comparatively to the 1906 quake. The direction of FEMA following the 89' earthquake was towards building on the already demonstrated strengths of the organization, a valuable asset to this country.

Despite its relatively short existence, FEMA's structure has had a rollercoaster history. Its initial establishment as an independent regulatory agency was eventually elevated to cabinet-level leadership by President Clinton, only to be reorganized as an agency under the new Department of Homeland Security by current President George W. Bush in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in his Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate. (dhs.gov, emergencies and disasters, 3-11) The current organization of the agency carries a Director (the Under-Secretary), four divisions, fourteen offices, and ten regions. (fema.gov, structure 3-11). The Director position is currently vacant but acting Director is Robert David Paulison, who reports directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. The four divisions, which the agency defines as domains of emergency management, are mitigation, preparedness, recovery, and response. They have very distinct roles and the heads of these divisions report to Interim Director Paulison. (fema.gov, structure, 3-11) (dhs.gov, dhs organization, 3-11) Interim Director Paulison is a Democrat from Florida who also currently serves as the Director of the National Preparedness Division of FEMA. He was appointed by President Bush in 2001 to lead the United States Fire Administration and served in that capacity until 2003 when he was promoted. Former FEMA director Michael Brown was relieved of command in 2005 following much controversy surrounding FEMA's response performance to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast of the United States in August 2005. Paulison was selected to temporarily replace Brown and the position has yet to be filled. (Fournier, AP 9-12-05). The responsibilities of the agency, which have also been adjusted a lot, are to primarily respond to United States disasters as declared by the President. It works heavily with different organizations at all governmental levels, leading and coordinating the response effort and eventually the financial assistance for the rebuilding effort. While much of its management powers have been relocated to the Department of Homeland Security, the agency still oversees the National Flood Insurance Program. (dhs.gov, emergency response and preparedness, 3-11) This jumbling and exchanging of the organizational structure and responsibilities is credited by critics as being one of the largest reasons for the failure of the agency during Hurricane Katrina. (Editorial 2-16-06, Columbus Dispatch)

The arguments about the strengths and weaknesses of FEMA as an agency are tough to make for the fact that the reorganization of the agency has practically created a brand new organization in comparison to the pre-9/11 FEMA. Following the enormity of Hurricane Katrina and the terrible response to the destruction that plagued the southern states, demands for investigations into the slow response of FEMA and other governmental bodies including the White House and the Department of Homeland Security were rampant. The agency's current positions, critics argue, leaves it with less money to fund federal disaster relief efforts because of increased spending on the fight on terrorism and the agency's belonging to the Department of Homeland Security. Additionally, the mass reorganization of twenty-two federal agencies into the Department of Homeland Security is often citied by critics as a major reason for failed relief efforts during Katrina.

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown has been castigated for his agency's failure to respond competently to the Gulf Coast disaster, but The Post's investigation showed that he had been bitterly protesting for two years about the shifting of some of FEMA's responsibility to other agencies in the reorganization. In a September 2003 memo to then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Brown wrote that moving some of FEMA's emergency-preparedness functions elsewhere would "shatter agency morale" and "break longstanding, effective and tested relationships with states and first-responder stakeholders" and could result in "an ineffective and uncoordinated response" to a disaster. -Editorial 2-16-06, Columbus Dispatch

A major strength of the organization lies in its recognition with the citizens of the United States. Its well-known responsibilities given its enormous work in the last 26 years have elevated the agency to a position of leadership in times of a disaster crisis. Thus, the coordinating and management of smaller agencies, governments, and private companies during such times is beginning to move smoother and for that reason. Well the debate on the topic of FEMA's strengths and weaknesses is never-ending, one thing is clear; this agency is a relatively young one that is still experiencing growing pains and figuring out how to operate among mass changes and in primarily chaotic times.

Very clearly this organization is failing. Hurricane Katrina is one of the largest disasters in our nation's history. Like the earthquake of 1906, victims of that disaster were left stranded, by themselves, in complete and utter shock. The prevailing opinion is that FEMA's response to the disaster was nothing close to what it should or could have been. The real question is why is this organization failing? Evidence of streamlined operations and ever-increasing performance quality was making itself apparent in the early 90's and President Clinton's action of bringing the agency to cabinet level only helped that process move forward. The response of FEMA to the terrorist attack of 9/11 was within minutes of the first plane striking the tower. It played the major role in the distribution of the almost all of the raised funds. However, the new directive of President Bush to reorganize FEMA under the new DHS has proven to be the cause for failure as it has not been since before the agency's existence that we have seen such a failed federal response to a large-scale natural disaster. Predictions of the reorganization's implication on FEMA's performance were made when former director Brown first heard of the plan. According to The Washington Post's investigation, Brown shouted these concerns at the top of his lungs for months prior to Katrina. Once Hurricane Katrina happened, the federal government even ignored offers to help there were so disorganized (Editorial, Chicago Tribune) It is unfortunate that this consolidation attempt is so seriously impacting the performance of the organization and the outcry for its reestablishment as its own agency needs to be considered immediately.

Works Cited

Editorial Board. "Daley 'Shocked' At Federal Snub of Offers to Help." Chicago Tribune 2 Sept. 2005. ProQuest. UMD Library, Duluth, MN. 11 Mar. 2006.

Editorial Board. "Fix What's Broken; Post-Hurricane Reports Make Clear That Homeland Security's FEMA Setup Doesn't Work." Columbus Dispatch 16 Feb. 2006. ProQuest. UMD Library, Duluth, MN. 11 Mar. 2006.

"Emergencies & Disasters." Department of Homeland Security. 11 Mar. 2006.

Fournier, Ron. "Firefighter to Replace Brown as FEMA Chief." Associated Press 12 Sept. 2005. ProQuest. UMD Library, Duluth, MN. 11 Mar. 2006.

"History." FEMA. 11 Mar. 2006 .

Kernell, Samuel, and Jacobson Gary. The Logic of American Politics. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: CQ P, 2006. 77-79.

"Structure." FEMA. 11 Mar. 2006 .
About the Author
Phil Forp is a contributing editor at Free Essays!
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