Obama’s FEMA: First Look at How It Worked

Obamas FEMA First Look at How It Worked

Washington, DC, August 27, 2011 – President Barack Obama participates in a federal agency coordination call with Administrator Fugate (right) and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano (left). (Photo: Dave_B_)

This is the final section of a five-part series on the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) successes and failures over the past 30 years. Leo Bosner, FEMA employee from 1979 to 2008, wrote the first four sections. If you want to read the complete FEMA series now, click here to download the PDF file for your computer or electronic reader. You can now also buy the Kindle version of the complete series here as part of the Truthout Reader program.

In this final part of the series, I examine how Obama's FEMA did with the preliminary help on Hurricane Irene, the Obama administration's first major, multistate disaster.

It will take many months to see if the current FEMA has the ability and political will and finances to finish the clean-up and restoration after a hurricane that swept through so many states with damaging winds and heavy floods. There are two areas of interest in examining this new FEMA; one, how the agency did its role effectively in real time on the ground of this hurricane; and, two, how the FEMA administrator, the head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the president stayed on top of the problem despite criticism in this highly charged political year.

After the massive federal, state and local government failure during Hurricane Katrina, the Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act in 2006. Among several of its important provisions, it gave FEMA the ability to react with aid before a state formally asks for help and to emphasize pre-positioning supplies before the storm to be ready to hit the ground with help as soon as the storm passed.

The pre-positioning of material appears to be one of the success stories of FEMA's effort. As Leo Bosner emphasized in Part Two of the series that told how Clinton's FEMA Director James Lee Witt made FEMA work, advance preparation with local and state governments on evacuation, setting up camps and prepositioning needed supplies were once again the formula that worked in the first few hours after the storm.

According to a story before Irene hit the East Coast in Bloomberg News:

“Fugate's FEMA is 'very much leaning forward and getting their teams prepositioned at the state level to provide assistance quickly,' said Mark Merritt, who was the deputy chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration with director James Lee Witt and is president of Witt Associates in Washington.”

Also, according to the same article, “FEMA is stocking emergency supplies in Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts: and McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.”

In another Bloomberg article on the same day, the president also seemed to be in the mix of people preparing for this storm. “FEMA has millions of meals and millions of liters of water ready to give out as well as cots, blankets and other supplies, Obama said.”

Even in Vermont, a state that sustained more severe damage from rainfall and floods than was anticipated, FEMA was able to get supplies on the ground and delivered to towns that literally had lost their road to the rest of the world:

The Vermont National Guard was in high gear Wednesday, with more supplies, helicopters and soldiers available than at any point since Irene hit Sunday, according to Lt. Col. Lloyd Goodrow, a spokesman for the Guard.

“We are in the delivery business,” Goodrow said Wednesday morning.

Twenty more tractor-trailer trucks from the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived overnight, said Goodrow, adding to the 30 that arrived Tuesday.

The trucks carried meals, blankets, medical supplies, water and diapers, Goodrow said.

Since disaster assistance is an educated guessing game about what areas will need help the most, FEMA's ability to pivot and switch their supply chain at short notice shows a bureaucracy that is well run, and their people were given the flexibility to get the supplies to where they was needed.

Although, as I write, there are still millions of people without power and hundreds still stranded by Irene, there hasn't been any of the heartbreaking scenes like Americans outside the Superdome after Katrina, holding their babies and chanting “help, help, help,” – the aftermath of George Bush's FEMA.

One of my own sources on the ground in Maryland also agreed that the difference this time was FEMA's ability to work with local governments and the Red Cross. My source is a retired Congressional staffer and a longtime Red Cross volunteer, who was responsible for setting up a shelter before the storm. He found that FEMA worked more closely with him and other local officials, and they had containers that were already stocked with the supplies needed to quickly put up a safe evacuation center with plenty of supplies. Because the track of the storm did not bring as much heavy rain and flooding to Maryland as expected, my source said that they did not have a huge amount of people, but based on his past disasters experience, it was a good idea just to be ready for the worst.

Before the hurricane hit, I had a discussion with Leo Bosner, the author of parts one through four of this FEMA series, on what to expect and how to tell if the system was working. Leo said that an indicator of whether this new FEMA is working is whether people see their state and local people in action. He said that if the local and state people are able to do their jobs effectively, much of the credit would be to FEMA for reinstating the emphasis on drills and working with local and state governments before the disaster hits.

Even in this highly vitriolic political atmosphere, several popular Republican governors had high praise for FEMA and the administration on the preliminary relief. Republican Gov. of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, was quoted in The Washington Post deeply praising the whole Obama administration's efforts on Irene:

“Gov. Bob McDonnell, who as chair of the Republican Governors Association has not been shy about criticizing the Obama Administration, complimented the president and FEMA on their help in responding to Hurricane Irene. 'It has been outstanding,' said McDonnell on his monthly call-in show on WTOP radio.”

Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has been begged by many party leaders to run for president this year, also told The Wall Street Journal how pleased he was with the president and FEMA during this storm:

“Mr. Christie said he had just spoken with President Barack Obama, who he said pledged to do everything he could for the people of New Jersey. Mr. Cuomo said he had a similar conversation with the president. Mr. Christie sound confident that the aid would come within days.

'He is encouraging Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano to cut the red tape on FEMA stuff so that it can flow even more quickly,' Mr. Christie said of his conversation with Mr. Obama. 'When the president of the United States is making those kind of assurances, I believe that he's going to be able to get it done and I think he deserves great credit for the way FEMA operated in this storm.”

As illustrated in Bosner's second part of this series, Obama appears to be taking his cues on FEMA and disaster preparation from the success of the Clinton administration. Like Clinton and Witt, Obama has picked a seasoned emergency manager in Craig Fugate. Although known as a confirmed Democrat, Fugate's best experience was to be both Republican Govs. Jeb Bush's and Charlie Crist's State of Florida emergency manager through some of Florida's toughest hurricane experiences. According to his FEMA biography:

“During his years at FDEM [Florida Emergency Management Program], Mr. Fugate served as the State Coordinating Officer in Florida for 11 Presidentially-declared disasters and the management of $4.5 billion in federal disaster assistance.

In 2004, Mr. Fugate managed the largest federal disaster response in Florida history as four major hurricanes impacted the state in quick succession (Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne). In 2005, Florida was again impacted by major disasters when three more hurricanes made landfall in the state (Dennis, Katrina and Wilma). The impact from Hurricane Katrina was felt more strongly in the Gulf Coast states to the west but under the Emergency Management Assistance Compact or EMAC, Florida launched the largest mutual aid response in its history in support of those states.”

As Fugate showed by working with two Republican governors, disasters are nonpartisan and hurricanes don't check the politics of the homeowners who have lost everything in the storm. He also illustrated, as did Witt, that FEMA is a vital agency that needs a leader who understands disasters and not a political slot to be filled by second-hand political cronies like George W. Bush's Michael Brown, whose last job before entering FEMA was being in charge of a horseman's association.

However, this bipartisan approach to the storm hasn't lasted. Even as Irene was dumping its deluge of rain onto the East Coast and inland, Republicans began to take out the long knives on Obama and FEMA. Although he voted several years ago to do just the opposite, House Republican Leader Eric Cantor has insisted that all the emergency money spent on this and other disasters must have equal cuts in the already beleaguered nondiscretionary spending budget. This came from a member of Congress whose district was the epicenter of the unexpected earthquake that hit the mid-Atlantic states right before Irene. Other Republicans piled on, and Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, true to his idealistic libertarian roots, wants FEMA to be eliminated all together and to go back to the time when each local town and their state were on their own when disaster struck.

According to The Hill newsletter, even before Irene, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Alabama.), chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee, put in cuts of up to 55 percent of FEMA's budget this year. Congressman David Price (D-North Carolina) put in an amendment to restore state and local FEMA funding, but it did not pass. The Hill newsletter states: “With the cuts, FEMA state and local programs would be reduced by 55 percent compared to levels for fiscal 2011 and by 70 percent compared to fiscal 2010.”

Many Republicans have embraced the idea of no disaster funds without offsets. Governors of both parties are wondering if FEMA, which admitted that its coffers are light from a year of many disasters, will be able to sustain the emergency funding to do the long-term repairs necessary with the aftermath of Irene and other disasters. Obama promises that the funding will be there to finish the job. Ironically, much of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were also emergency budgets, yet there was no attempt to have offsets for these wars and their appropriations were never in question.

And now that the disaster has struck, some Republicans have now flipped and said that Obama isn't giving FEMA the resources it needs. In a special opinion piece for CNN, Sally Kohn writes about this irony and extremes in idealism in the Republican party that led to these seemingly hypocritical stances:

“Conservatives hate FEMA precisely because it represents the ideals of government at its best. Not always the implementation – the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exposed the dire need for reforms in FEMA's chain of command. But the spirit – that, as Thomas Jefferson put it, through our government, we 'unite in common efforts for the common good.'

“Just as up and down the East Coast this weekend, good neighbors helped those who couldn't help themselves, in these crisis moments, good government helps entire neighborhoods, towns and even cities that can't help themselves.

“Hurricane Irene tragically claimed at least 21 lives, but fortunately the damage overall was less than anticipated. Still, according to the Los Angeles Times, total uninsured losses could be as high as $4 billion. At a time when cities and states are already strapped and our fragile economy needs every small business and working family at full speed, it's the job of our federal government to help. Yes, even if that means taxing the very rich or borrowing more money to do so.

“Funnily enough, now some Republicans in Congress are demanding FEMA's budget be increased. The very same party that tried to slash FEMA's budget by more than half is now accusing President Obama of 'purposefully and irresponsibly underfunding' disaster relief and 'putting families and communities who have suffered from terrible disasters on the back burner.'

“The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee which earlier this year gouged FEMA's budget has issued a press release trying to blame Democrats and the president for cuts to disaster relief aid. Someone had better call the Congressional doctor and check the Capitol building for chunks of falling debris.”

Emergency funding for FEMA has rarely been this political and Bosner cannot remember a time where emergency funding for disasters has had to be offset by cutting the budget elsewhere. As shown in this series, FEMA has been a political football for years, but we have now entered the “silly season” of presidential election politics, and politicians, except for the ones who actually have to deal with this disaster, are jockeying to make their ideological points.

Of course, there are politics on both sides in this disaster, President Obama, just like President Clinton, learned that making FEMA work during disasters is also good politics, something both Bush presidents didn't learn. As Bosner pointed out in his series, choosing a leader with disaster assistance and making close alliances with state and local governments helped make FEMA work in this initial test. Based on Bosner's series, we did show what made FEMA work in national disasters, but also showed that years of neglect, politics and cronyism can lead to failures like Katrina. The politicians in charge also need to want to make the federal government work better, but there seems to be a movement afoot to find failure as an excuse to eliminate or shrink all government programs outside of the Pentagon into oblivion.

Based on this first test of Obama's FEMA, these factions in the government are going to have a harder time convincing the beleaguered people on the East Coast and New England that federal government programs don't matter and are just intrusions into your life. But Obama's work with FEMA and these disasters is just beginning because the cleanup and rebuilding process will take years. So far, his FEMA organization and his administration seem to be up to the task.


This column contained a major mistake about Rep. David Price. He was incorrectly identified as a Republican and is a Democratic member of Congress. Also, the column states that he was responsible for passing an amendment to cut up to 55 percent of FEMA's budget this year. The member of Congress that put in those cuts was actually Rep. Robert Aderholt (R- Alabama), chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee. Representative Price put in an amendment to restore the cuts to FEMA, but the amendment failed. We have corrected last week's column and I extend apologies to Representative Price for the errors.

Dina Rasor, Solutions Editor