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Averting Disasters

Friday, May 22, 2009

Some ideas on how to fix FEMA.

The recent outbreak of the H1N1, or the so-called “swine flu” virus, appears mostly under control. Federal, state, and local disaster response groups have long prepared for an avian flu outbreak, a disaster comparable to a potential swine flu pandemic. And while a potential swine flu outbreak will likely be manageable due to the avian flu drills, now is an opportune time to assess the fragile state of the nation’s overall disaster response system in the vast majority of other types of catastrophic disasters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sends funds to assist in disaster response, but the agency is still poorly positioned to respond to major emergencies. Despite the natural, humanitarian, and political disaster of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA cannot adequately handle large-scale emergencies because it lacks sufficient standing within the federal bureaucracy to garner full interagency cooperation. Fixing this will go a long way toward making FEMA an effective and responsive agency.

FEMA was originally created by President Carter in 1979 to oversee and coordinate federal government disaster preparedness and response functions, while simultaneously allowing state and local governments to retain ultimate authority over disaster response. Federal law requires state and local authorities to first assess the damage and then submit official requests for federal aid. Only after the president has received and certified these requests can FEMA become directly involved in the disaster response efforts.

The federal government rarely assumes ultimate control of disaster response and prefers to supplement state and local resources. In the vast majority of disasters, FEMA’s role has been limited to providing monetary reimbursement and logistical support to state and local agencies. While this approach has been successful in smaller-scale disasters, FEMA has failed to develop an effective national disaster plan to coordinate efforts when state resources are completely overwhelmed, in so-called “catastrophic disasters.”

By placing the vice president in charge of FEMA during national disasters, FEMA would be granted sufficient standing when necessary.

The problems were highlighted when category-4 storm Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida in August 1992. At the time the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, the storm killed 26 people directly and caused 39 additional deaths indirectly. State and local governments were essentially paralyzed as roughly 1.5 million people lost power and nearly 150,000 people had their phone service disrupted. The storm caused between $35 and $40 billion worth of damage, destroyed 28,000 homes, and damaged thousands of others. In the midst of the chaos, FEMA failed to coordinate the 26 federal departments and 13 “functional,” or working, groups it oversees.

The FEMA director lacked sufficient standing within the federal bureaucracy to rapidly redirect the efforts and resources of so many agencies reporting to various cabinet secretaries. Amid widespread criticism of the slow and largely ineffective federal response, President George H.W. Bush sent Secretary of Transportation Andrew Card to take control of the situation. Card was able to navigate the massive bureaucratic obstacles necessary to coordinate a national response that included so many federal, state, local, and private-sector agencies. However, because most of the 26 federal departments and 13 functional groups FEMA oversees are not located within the secretary of Transportation’s jurisdiction, it is unlikely that his success stemmed from his authority as a cabinet secretary. Rather, political pressure following the initial failed response coupled with the president’s clear desire to avoid additional bureaucratic failures compelled interagency cooperation.

Some of the problems highlighted during Hurricane Andrew were solved through the 2002 creation of the Department of Homeland Security, under which FEMA is now housed. In February 2003, President George W. Bush issued a directive designed to create a “single, comprehensive national incident management system.” The new system promised to help achieve “full and prompt cooperation, and support” from “the heads of all federal departments and agencies” and yield greater coordination between federal, state, and local governments. 

The changes were intended to ensure that homeland security concerns, including disaster preparedness, would receive sufficient standing within the federal bureaucracy to be effective, without expanding the government through the creation of a potentially controversial new cabinet-level position. But these changes were eventually proven by Hurricane Katrina to be inadequate. 

The Post-Katrina Reform Act of 2006 was an effort to fix the nation’s emergency response shortcomings. It gave the director of FEMA direct access to the president through meetings during catastrophic disasters. However, presidents must attend to many tasks frequently requiring immediate attention and must filter through constant and often conflicting advice from competing agencies and advisers. Therefore, in order for FEMA to adequately respond to the needs of a catastrophic emergency, it must be granted improved standing within the federal bureaucracy and increased access to the president in a unique way—perhaps by making the vice president, the high-level official closest to the president with more time to devote to this issue than the president could himself, the temporary co-director of FEMA only during national disasters. 

The vice president’s seal of approval on interagency requests that require the rapid reallocation of large resources increases the likelihood that bureaucratic obstacles will be set aside during the initial phase of the federal response to a catastrophic disaster.

The vice president in cooperation with the FEMA director and the secretary of Homeland Security would be better equipped to coordinate the federal disaster response during catastrophic disasters. Simply put, the vice president’s seal of approval on interagency requests that require the rapid reallocation of large resources increases the likelihood that bureaucratic obstacles will be set aside during the initial phase of the federal response to a catastrophic disaster. By placing the vice president in charge of FEMA during national disasters, FEMA would be granted sufficient standing when necessary—if a disaster crosses a predetermined threshold based on perhaps the number of casualties, the size of the affected area, or if state and local officials request special assistance—but without upsetting an already delicate balance of power in the federal bureaucracy unless absolutely necessary.

James F. Miskel, former National Security Council member during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, and Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland) have suggested granting the vice president varying degrees of control over FEMA. However, the vice president should serve primarily as a high-level advocate, rather than micromanager of the federal disaster response. To properly prepare to step in and coordinate federal relief amid large-scale disaster, the vice president should receive information about all FEMA operations as part of his daily briefings as well as periodically meet with disaster response experts.

FEMA remains overlooked in its current positioning in the federal bureaucracy. Despite President Obama’s relatively early Cabinet member selections and confirmations, he waited until early March to name a FEMA director. Obama’s new director of FEMA, Craig Fugate, was only sworn in this week. President Obama and Congress must work to ensure that FEMA is granted appropriate standing to assure that all American resources can be quickly and efficiently redirected to save lives and relieve human suffering during the next catastrophic disaster.

Jessica Leval is assistant director of the AEI-Brookings Continuity of Government Commission and a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute. Andrew Mener is founding chief of the University of Pennsylvania’s Emergency Medical Services and a medical student in the Emergency Management Track at The George Washington University.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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