FEMA - doesn't "do" disasters any more
Date: Tuesday, September 06 2005
Topic: Eye on Uncle Sam
Here is the truth about why relief was so slow getting to New Orleans. In 2004 FEMA was castrated, its job of dealing with natural disasters was contracted out. What we are seeing along the gulf coast is the "efficiency of the private sector".
How policy decisions doomed New Orleans
By Joel Bleifuss and Brian Cook
Stranded victims of Hurricane Katrina wait outside the Superdome to be evacuated.
White House Press Spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters in response to questions about the devastating havoc wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, “This is not a time for politics.”
But with New Orleans now underwater, hundreds—if not thousands—dead and tens of thousands in desperate need of food, shelter and water, the natural question is: What could the federal government have done to lessen this catastrophe? The answer is all about politics.
The Bush administration, having done its best to realize Grover Norquist’s dream of cutting government “to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” for days watched impotently as citizens of New Orleans were drowned. It is a disaster that is largely the consequence of the policy decisions that the White House has made over the past five years.
The faults of FEMA
The first defense was to plead ignorance. On September 1, President George W. Bush told “Good Morning America,” “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”
Except Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In 2001 FEMA designated a major hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the three “likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this county.” At the time, FEMA was headed by Bush’s former chief of staff in Texas, Joe Allbaugh, a self described political “heavy” who had no background in disaster relief.
With FEMA under Allbaugh’s watch, White House budget director Mitch Daniels announced in April 2001 the goal of privatizing much of FEMA’s work. As Allbaugh explained to Congress a month later, “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. Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.”
Allbaugh resigned in December 2002, announcing that he was going to seek his fortune by setting up a consulting firm that would help corporations hoping to do business in Iraq. His replacement, Michael Brown, also had no experience with disaster relief.
In March 2003, FEMA became a part of the Homeland Security Department and its emphasis shifted from dealing with natural disasters to potential terrorist attacks. Writing in the September 1 Washington Post, Eric Holdeman, emergency management director for King County, Washington, asked why “the country’s premier agency for dealing with such events [has been] systematically downgraded and all but dismantled by the Department of Homeland Security.”
He noted that this year “it was announced that FEMA is to ‘officially’ lose [its] disaster preparedness function. … In fact, FEMA employees have been directed not to become involved in disaster preparedness functions, since a new directorate (yet to be established) will have that mission.”