Forget the Election and the Politics: What Will Make FEMA Work for the People?

For the residents of the Eastern Seaboard and beyond, the compelling question in the wake of Hurricane Sandy is, “How well will FEMA manage the disaster and its aftermath?” For me, there is one equally compelling question: What would Leo do?

This is an amazing time. While we have had disasters close to elections that have caused politicians to rise and fall based on the government response, there has never been one so close to a presidential election. The pundits are awash in speculation and titillated at every step to see who does what, who says what and who said politically ideological things in the past, hopefully on video so that they can run the loop over and over depending on their own political leanings.

It is all high political drama, but right now so many lives are at stake that I am interested in whether FEMA will work as well as it did in disasters under James Lee Witt, or as disastrously as it did for Hurricane Katrina. After all, this column is called Solutions: Making Government Work and I want to see what worked in the past regardless of politics and political parties.

So I called Leo Bosner, a former FEMA employee who was at FEMA when it was born in 1979 and stayed until 2008. He wrote four parts of a five-part series on FEMA for my Solutions column in August 2011, which can be found on the Solutions archive page or in one of our electronic Truthout Readers that can be downloaded from Amazon.

I have known Leo since 1990 when I was writing about FEMA’s response to the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco and he was still working for FEMA. He is a calm and effective guy, exactly the type of person you would like to see from FEMA when you have to quickly evacuate because your house is being washed away or you are having trouble getting the disaster loan help to rebuild. As a watch officer at FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center (NRCC), he has been at ground zero for many of the same kind of disasters that Hurricane Sandy has wrought.

Leo was bemused that some of the politicians have suggested that FEMA’s duties be returned to the states because FEMA’s birth in 1979 was a request by the National Governor’s Association. From the FEMA history web site:

However, emergency and disaster activities were still fragmented. When hazards associated with nuclear power plants and the transportation of hazardous substances were added to natural disasters, more than 100 federal agencies were involved in some aspect of disasters, hazards and emergencies. Many parallel programs and policies existed at the state and local level, compounding the complexity of federal disaster relief efforts. The National Governor’s Association sought to decrease the many agencies with which state and local governments were forced work. They asked President Jimmy Carter to centralize federal emergency functions.

FEMA reacts to a disaster only after a governor of a state specifically requests FEMA and the federal government’s help, except when federal land is involved like the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building. Leo says that sometimes the governors have abused this process when there was a small disaster in their state that they could handle with their own budget and first responders but wanted the federal money. I suspect that some of these cases of small disasters were used so the governor could offset some of the state debt.

Leo believes that a disaster the size of Katrina, and now Sandy, are so big that they affect large areas that breach many state lines and having a central organization that can muster federal sources is a must in a modern country. He also says that you need to realize that the disaster can affect the rest of the country, because our country is so interconnected. You can see that rolling effect with the closure of the US Stock Exchange for two days during and after Sandy, something that has not been done since the 1800s.

Leo wonders if some of the politicians who suggest the total elimination of FEMA would also suggest eliminating the US Army and just turn that function over to each state National Guard who could protect each state from any US enemy.

Leo and I were also perplexed at the suggestion that perhaps private corporations should replace the overall management functions of FEMA. I have investigated and seen what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan when several private companies replaced large amounts of the Army’s duties, including logistics and even protecting generals and civilian leaders. There were many instances where these companies and their employees refused to do the work because it had become too dangerous and walked off the job in a war zone. The Army was helpless to stop this because the employees and their companies were civilian and had the right to quit. It caused troops to be stuck in remote areas with little supplies for months at a time.

If disaster relief was totally privatized, clear down to the first responders, it would be like the practices in the 18th and 19th centuries, before municipal firehouses, where people would buy fire protection from companies and put fire insurance marks plaques on their houses so the various fire protection companies would know which houses to try to save in case of a fire. These metal fire insurance marks are now sought-after antiques, and so is this practice.

However, this theory of pay-to-play on disasters made a disconcerting revival when the municipality of South Fulton, Tennessee had their firefighters stand by and let a man’s house burn because the homeowner had forgotten to pay the $75 fee that they require if you were not in the city limits. They would not allow him to pay the money as his house burned down and then sprang into work when the neighbor’s house also started to burn because they paid the fee. According to NBC News:

“Professional, career firefighters shouldn’t be forced to check a list before running out the door to see which homeowners have paid up,” Harold Schaitberger, International Association of Fire Fighters president, said in a statement. “They get in their trucks and go.”

I am still puzzled how you would have private companies or even local municipalities handle who paid to be rescued from the flooded neighborhoods of Katrina and Sandy. Would you really leave someone behind on top of their house because they didn’t buy the disaster protection? And how could these companies handle something as large and catastrophic as these hurricanes? Perhaps my libertarian friends could try to explain it but I doubt that their privatization theories could make any sense in this type of situation. It is bad enough to fight and negotiate the paperwork with insurance companies after these types of disasters; can you imagine trying to do it when you are on your rooftop waving at the helicopter to save you? There are some assets that only the federal government has in these types of disasters to assist states, nonprofit organizations like the Red Cross, cities, counties and private businesses.

Leo is watching the response to Sandy with great interest to see if FEMA, which worked very well as its own presidential cabinet agency during the Clinton years, would be able to rise to the same level of effectiveness since it has become just another part of the cavernous Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

He is also guardedly optimistic about the current director of FEMA, Craig Fugate, because of Fugate’s successful work on four serious hurricanes in Florida when he worked for two Florida Republican governors. He is concerned that it will be hard to be effective if people above Fugate in DHS, who really don’t understand disaster relief but feel that they have to get involved at the ground level. He had problems with this in the past when FEMA was first dropped into DHS. In his Solutions column series, he raised some of the DHS-imposed problems during FEMA’s desperate times during Katrina:

And then there were the contractors.

As mentioned earlier, FEMA staff levels had declined drastically since the DHS takeover of 2003. Now, with a major disaster under way, FEMA was, naturally, short-staffed.

No problem. Several major contracting companies would supply the extra staff to make up for the shortage of FEMA employees.

Now, the fact is, most of the contract employees with whom I worked were top-notch people who did a wonderful job. I had a number of them working for me during Katrina and by and large they were excellent employees….

[I]t also became clear that some of these companies were gaming the system and using the disaster as an opportunity to obtain free training for their staff, rather than as a concerted effort to relieve human misery.

For example, as I came on duty one night I was approached by a young man I’ll call “Phil.” Phil introduced himself, said he worked for the XXX company that was supporting FEMA in the disaster response and that he would be assigned to work for me. The only thing was, he had never done this type of work before, so could I please show him the ropes and explain what was needed?

Well, as any soldier can tell you, the middle of a battle is not when you want to start giving the troops their basic training, but Phil was there and I needed people, so I spent time with him showing him what was needed, going over his work with him and taking whatever time was needed to bring him up to speed. I then had him work alongside some of our more experienced people and within a few nights, Phil pretty much had the hang of it.

Then he disappeared.

Yep, one night I came in for our shift and Phil was gone, just when his work had started to be fully productive. Now that he had been trained, his company had shifted Phil to another work site. No problem – a young lady I’ll call “Melinda” then walked up to me and introduced herself. Melinda said she worked for the XXX company that was supporting FEMA in the disaster response and that she would be assigned to work for me.

The only thing was, she had never done this type of work before, so could I please show her the ropes and explain what was needed?

It quickly became clear to me what an opportunity Hurricane Katrina was for some of the FEMA contracting companies. They would send their least-experienced staff to FEMA, supposedly to “assist” with the disaster work, but in reality to be trained by FEMA staff, who would be forced to take time away from their disaster relief work to do the training. Once the contract staff had been trained on one job, they could be transferred elsewhere and another novice brought in to “help.”

So we continued to limp along at FEMA, short-staffed, burdened by poor leadership, confusing plans and, most of all, by the DHS. We did our best for the victims of Katrina, but it was not nearly good enough and it was not what they, or America, deserved from their government.

It is not clear that Fugate has been able to reverse that trend or add to it. It will be interesting to see how FEMA handles management of contractor input and their necessary private vendors during this newest disaster.

This disaster of Sandy is still raw and unfolding with unprecedented level of politics watching every move until the election. But the election will come and go far before these beleaguered states and their citizens will have repaired their own calamities. FEMA will be there throughout this long road and will be trying to make everyone come together and fix this problem while bracing for whatever theory the politicians push on the agency.

The FEMA people on the ground who followed Leo Bosner will just have to cope with the political winds in the same way that Leo did for many years and outlined in his Solutions column series and his Truthout Reader. Leo laid out how he thinks the FEMA bureaucracy can work despite these political winds as long as it has a resolute director. Below is what Leo laid out in the second part of the series. I hope that politics can be set aside, even in this overheated election, and FEMA can be configured to work for the American people. It has before when competency instead of politics allowed it work and be accountable to the people.

Here is Leo’s solution, based on three decades of working on disasters:

I believe that the following factors would be key to the success of a modern emergency management agency in the US or in any other country:

1. A lead agency with competent leadership, well-trained staff, a clearly-defined mission, enabling legislation, an adequate budget and visible proximity and direct access to the president or other chief executive.

2. Partnership and cooperation among national government agencies, state and local governments, the private sector, the nonprofit sector, private citizens and international partners in other countries.

3. Respect and support for existing state and local emergency response organizations such as emergency services offices, fire departments, police departments, emergency medical services, and other response organizations.

4. A program that includes the four interdependent and cyclical phases of emergency management:

Mitigation, to prevent future disasters and/or reduce their impacts, for example, through disaster-resistant building codes,

Preparedness, to train and prepare for future disasters, for example, through training and written guidance for emergency responders,

Response, to act quickly and provide assistance when disaster occurs, for example, by establishing and using practical response plans and

Recovery, to help rebuild in the weeks, months and years after the disaster, for example, through financial aid to individuals and municipalities to rebuild, but this time to rebuild stronger and better, thus returning to the first phase of the cycle, Mitigation.

5. A comprehensive approach that takes in all potential aspects of the disaster response such as transportation, mass care, health and medical services, and the other jobs described in the 12 ESFs [Emergency Support Functions].

6. An understanding that information management and resource coordination are key to any disaster response.

7. Responsiveness and openness to questions from the public and from the news media, along with a proactive (and honest) program of public information outreach and public education about disasters.

8. Systems to protect the safety and health of disaster workers.

9. The willingness to learn from disaster experience, including our own mistakes, in order to continually upgrade and improve the emergency management system.