Skip to content Skip to footer
Part One: FEMA and Disaster – a Look at What Worked and What Didn’t From a FEMA Insider

An Urban Search and Rescue Team bring victims of the flood waters of New Orleans to dry land by boat, August 30, 2005. (Photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA )

Part One: FEMA and Disaster – a Look at What Worked and What Didn’t From a FEMA Insider

An Urban Search and Rescue Team bring victims of the flood waters of New Orleans to dry land by boat, August 30, 2005. (Photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA )

Part of the Series

Leo Bosner was an employee of FEMA from 1979 until his retirement in 2008. At the time of his retirement, he was president of the FEMA Headquarters employees' union, AFGE Local 4060. The views expressed here are Mr. Bosner's personal views only.

On April 19, 1995, at a few minutes past nine in the morning local time, terrorists explodeda deadly bomb in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. There had been no warning of the event, no weather forecasts to predict this the way one would predict a natural disaster such as a hurricane or a flood.

To the extent that Americans worried about terrorist attacks in 1995, they generally worried about the attacks taking place in Washington or in New York, San Francisco, or some other iconic American city. Not Oklahoma City.

Nonetheless, when news of the attack appeared on the TV screens, FEMA acted quickly. Within minutes of the TV news broadcast, phones and pagers were going off all over FEMA Headquarters in southwest Washington, DC. The Emergency Support Team has been activated: Report to your duty stations. Twenty-four-hour coverage at FEMA's emergency support center will begin immediately. All hands report in.

Meanwhile, in Denton, Texas, FEMA's Region VI Office had activated its own emergency operations center as well.

Well and good for FEMA, but what about some help for Oklahoma City? What could be done and who would make the decision to do it? The division director in charge of emergency response was out of town on travel. No problem … his deputy moved quickly, activating FEMA's emergency operations center and talking by phone with FEMA's Regional Office in Denton as well as Oklahoma officials to determine exactly what help would be needed from FEMA.

It was soon apparent that the most needed asset from FEMA would be help in looking for possible survivors beneath the concrete rubble of the bombed-out building. The deputy gave the order and FEMA Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Task Forces from Phoenix, Arizona, and Sacramento, California, were deployed to Oklahoma City. The two task forces mobilized their people, gathered their gear and headed out. By 11:00 that night, both task forces had arrived in Oklahoma City. Eventually, 11 FEMA US&R task forces would be deployed to Oklahoma City to help in the search for survivors.

Total time elapsed since the bombing:

  • FEMA Region VI Emergency Operations Center activated – about 30 minutes.
  • FEMA staff deployed to Oklahoma City – about 45 minutes.
  • First US&R task forces deployed – about two hours.
  • First US&R task forces arrive in Oklahoma City – about 14 hours.

Fast-forward ten years later, to August 2005. Hurricane Katrina, a devastating storm, has crossed Florida and entered the Gulf of Mexico and is on a trajectory to strike New Orleans. But this time, unlike at Oklahoma City, there is plenty of warning. The National Weather Service has been tracking the storm and is projecting its likely path. And on Saturday morning, August 27, FEMA's National Situation Report (NSR), which goes out to top federal officials every day at 5:30 AM, Eastern time, featured the storm prominently. The storm was projected to hit New Orleans 48 hours later, on Monday morning.

Forty-eight hours warning time was 48 hours more than FEMA had before the Oklahoma City bombing. In fact, one year earlier, FEMA representatives sat down with Louisiana officials in a major exercise called “Hurricane Pam,” and discussed and planned just how FEMA and other agencies would work together should a major hurricane hit New Orleans.

Forty-eight hours advance warning … one year's advance planning … ten years' experience since Oklahoma City. Surely, FEMA's response to Katrina would be quick, decisive and effective.

There is no need to even try to recount the whole sad story of FEMA's response to Katrina here … the indecisiveness, the delays, the lost opportunities have all been well-documented elsewhere. Many of FEMA's staff at this time had also worked for the agency during the response to Oklahoma City, but this time, they could only watch in anger as their efforts were pushed aside by the higher-ups, as straightforward warnings like the August 27 NSR were virtually ignored at the senior levels of government. As one frustrated FEMA staffer put it, “We might as well have been sending our reports directly to the shredder.”

What went wrong? How did the agency that came to the rescue so quickly after the Oklahoma City bombing become the gang that couldn't shoot straight after Hurricane Katrina?

Since its establishment in 1979, FEMA has flashed in and out of America's field of vision several times, sometimes seen as a rescuer, sometimes as a buffoon. What is FEMA supposed to do, anyway … stop terrorists? Rescue hurricane survivors? Clean up oil spills? And how can the same government agency seem to do such a good job one time and such a terrible job the next?


FEMA 1979-1992: An Agency in Search of a Mission

FEMA came into being on April 1 1979. The agency was established as an effort to give states a sort of one-stop-shopping at the federal level in case of disaster.

Up until then, a state governor faced with an overwhelming earthquake, hurricane, or other disaster might have had to make dozens of phone calls to a laundry list of military and civilian offices to seek out a range of federal help. This was because the various federal offices in charge of preparing, responding to, recovering from and preventing disasters were scattered across the federal government. To make things worse, when these offices interacted with each other, the interaction could often be characterized as competition rather than as cooperation.

So, in 1979, staffs of entire offices were lifted out of their parent agencies – Defense, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, and others – and brought together in a new agency called “FEMA.”

At first, confusion could be found in abundance. Exactly what was this new agency supposed to do? How were staff supposed to work as a team with people from offices they had never heard of before … or with whom they had often been in conflict? What was a person with this new job title “Emergency Management Specialist” supposed to do, exactly?

The agency's first Director, John Macy, did his best to bring together a mass of squabbling, ill-fitting components into a single agency, but in addition to the obvious difficulties of such a task, Macy faced one insurmountable problem: bad timing.

In 1979, the Carter administration was beginning to draw to a close and Carter himself was becoming less and less popular as a president. So, while Macy struggled to bring FEMA up to speed and even to define just what FEMA was, his administration was on the way out. In November 1980, less than two years after FEMA was established, Jimmy Carter lost his bid for re-election to Ronald Reagan.

In January 1981, as the Reagan administration begins, it becomes increasingly clear that a major theme will be: Carter was wrong about everything. Placate the Soviets? Wrong. Solar power? Wrong. Social welfare programs? Wrong. FEMA …?

FEMA, now less than two years old, was still searching for its identity when Hurricane Reagan hit the agency. More and more military officers were seen daily signing in at the guards' desk. Director Macy was replaced by Louis Giuffrida, a retired Army officer. As the Reagan administration took an increasingly confrontational public stance against the Soviets, FEMA under Giuffrida took a similar approach. Coordinating the response to natural disasters was becoming less and less important. FEMA's real mission? Prepare for “The Big One,” the nuclear war with the Soviets.

FEMA would be an early version of TV hero Jack Bauer, fighting hard to save America from external threats. The problem was, the US government already had plenty of Jack Bauers at the FBI, the CIA and the Defense Department … and they had no love for this upstart FEMA that would suddenly dash to the front of the line and grab all the glory for our country's defense.

So FEMA, facing public anger from the anti-nuclear-war left, also faced disdain from the federal intelligence and law enforcement establishment. The agency soon became known as the “Turkey Farm,” where politically reliable (but not very skilled) political appointees would be sent to play their war games while the real action took place elsewhere.

To be sure, there were some bright spots in the FEMA leadership … Jeff Bragg, who established an employee performance management system in the Federal Insurance Administration, Sam Speck, who headed FEMA's State and Local Programs Directorate and who understood the value of reaching out to our non-federal partners instead of trying to order them around.

But leaders like Bragg and Speck were badly outnumbered by high-level opportunists, who saw a federal appointment as a chance to fatten their wallets, extend their power, even make a few sexual conquests. By 1985, FEMA faced public ridicule and had been racked by internal scandals … sex scandals, money scandals, you name it. Giuffrida stepped down as head of the agency. His replacement was Julius Becton.

Becton was a retired Army general with combat leadership experience in Korea and Vietnam. Before coming to FEMA, he had headed up the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). Becton knew something abut the realities of war as well as natural disasters. He was also a natural leader. Where Giuffrida had been an aloof, behind-the-scenes operator, Becton made it a point to meet with FEMA staff at “All-Hands” meetings, to hear people's concerns and to project a new image for FEMA: the days of scandal and opportunism were over; FEMA would function as a real government agency.

But while Becton certainly brought personal integrity to FEMA, he was still faced with the fact that FEMA was struggling to find its true mission. A nuclear face-off with the Soviets was appearing less and less likely, and it had been a long time since the US had to contend with a large-scale natural disaster. What, exactly, was FEMA there for?

Becton left the agency at the end of the Reagan administration. President George H.W. Bush, whose administration began in 1989, did not even bother to appoint a new FEMA Director. To Reagan, FEMA had been one of the front-line tools to be employed in America's hard-line stance against the Soviets. To Bush, FEMA was apparently an afterthought.

But not all the blame was on the Republican side. In 1989, it appeared to many leaders on the left and on the right that a major natural disaster in the US was simply an unlikely prospect. I once spent my lunch hour telling a news reporter that FEMA had been sadly neglecting preparedness for natural disasters. The reporter could barely stifle a yawn. What he really wanted to hear about was FEMA's “secret plan” to take over the country and put liberals into concentration camps.

So, FEMA was still a joke, a would-be secret agent in a world where the Soviet threat had largely disappeared and in a country that was considered to be immune to large-scale disasters.

Until 1989, that is.

On September 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo struck the coast of South Carolina with winds over 100 mph and a 20-foot storm surge. Damages were devastating, FEMA's response was perceived as being slow and ineffective and Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina called FEMA a “bunch of bureaucratic jackasses.” Bush had still failed to appoint anyone to head FEMA. When asked by a reporter why there was no director at FEMA, Bush replied “I don't know.”

The Bush administration promised that it had learned its lesson, that FEMA would be strengthened, but it appeared to many insiders that Bush's people considered Hurricane Hugo to be an aberration, an event unlikely ever to occur again. And if another disaster did occur? When the Loma Prieta earthquake hit California a month later, President Bush put his “Master of Disaster” in charge of coordinating federal relief operations … no, not anyone from FEMA, but the White House Deputy Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

In August 1990, nearly a full year after Hurricane Hugo, Bush finally appointed a new Director at FEMA, Wallace Stickney, a Republican transportation official from New England who had no experience with large-scale disasters. Unlike the highly visible Julius Becton, Stickney kept a low profile, even within his own agency. Many FEMA staff would say that they had never actually seen their director and that they did not even know what he looked like.

But it didn't matter. For the next two years, things were still relatively quiet, no major catastrophic disasters in the US. FEMA could remain a small, obscure federal agency where people did whatever it was they did. All was well with the world, and in the summer of 1992, Bush was considered by many to be a shoo-in for re-election over the young upstart Gov. of Arkansas Bill Clinton.

But in late August 1992, barely two months before the upcoming presidential election, disaster struck Florida and Louisiana … and the Bush administration. It was called Hurricane Andrew and its impact was even greater than Hugo's had been three years earlier. Where Hugo had caused an estimated $7 billion in damages in the US, Andrew's estimated US damages would exceed $20 billion.

FEMA was once again caught flat-footed, with neither a viable plan nor seasoned leadership to deal with the crisis. As the government's lack of response became more and more a political embarrassment, news media began to take a closer look at FEMA.

It soon became apparent that FEMA's problems were at the top of the agency and that the efforts of ordinary FEMA staffers to help the situation were ignored. One FEMA employee reported that she had been vacationing in Florida when the hurricane hit and had quickly phoned back to Washington, offering to get to work right away helping the disaster's survivors: I'm here in Florida, she said, I've got my FEMA ID, I'm packed for travel, I've got a rental car! Where should I go? What should I do?

Why, finish up your vacation and come home, was the answer.

Election Day came and the Bush administration was turned out of office, in part by angry voters who were incensed at the government's mishandling of the response to Hurricane Andrew. President-Elect Clinton's transition team was soon at work reviewing government operations from top to bottom to develop policy recommendations for the new administration that would take office in January. Given the physical as well as the political impacts of Hurricane Andrew, one question would not go away:

What do we do with FEMA?

Sources: In addition to drawing on his own experience for this article, the author wishes to acknowledge:

“The Oklahoma Department of Civil Emergency Management After Action Report, Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building Bombing 19 April 1995 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma”

“Introduction to Emergency Management,” Third Edition, by G. Haddow, J. Bullock and D. Coppola, Elsevier Publishing, 2008.

We need your help to propel Truthout into the new year

As we look toward the new year, we’re well aware of the obstacles that lie in the path to justice. But here at Truthout, we are encouraged and emboldened by the courage of people worldwide working to move us all forward — people like you.

If you haven’t yet made your end-of-year donation to support our work, this is the perfect moment to do so: Our year-end fundraising drive is happening now, and we must raise $150,000 by the end of December.

Will you stand up for truly independent, honest journalism by making a contribution in the amount that’s right for you? It only takes a few seconds to donate by card, Apple Pay, Google Pay, PayPal, or Venmo — we even accept donations of cryptocurrency and stock! Just click the red button below.