On January 20, 2001, George W. Bush was inaugurated as the 43rd president of the United States. Across the government, agency heads who had been appointed by President Clinton resigned to make room for the appointees from the new administration.
At FEMA in Washington, DC, Director James Witt said a few last goodbyes and left the FEMA Headquarters building after nearly eight years on the job.
He and his team had taken FEMA from being an object of scorn and ridicule to being one of the most respected agencies in the US government. The Midwest Floods, the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Northridge Earthquake, one hurricane after another, although not perfect (what ever is?), this eight-year period had shown that the federal government could do something right and it was FEMA's most effective era since its inception in 1979.
What would come next?
While the incoming Bush administration preached moderation and cooperation, government insiders could already sense that major changes were coming. Immediately after every election of a new president, but well before the inauguration, groups of individuals known as “transition teams” fan out across the federal bureaucracy. These teams represent the president-elect, until he takes office in January. Their mission, as their name implies, is to begin meeting with senior federal officials, agency by agency, to be briefed on what each agency had been doing to ensure a smooth transition to the new administration in January.
Transition team members are chosen for their professional expertise and, perhaps more importantly, for their close political ties with the incoming administration. In other words, the team members are expected to understand the workings of their assigned agency, but they are also expected to represent the thinking and philosophy of the incoming president.
Shortly after the November 2000 election, members of the Bush transition team arrived at FEMA to meet with senior FEMA officials of the outgoing Clinton administration. One of the FEMA officials later recalled the meeting: As long as the conversation centered on things like FEMA's work with NATO, or civil-military coordination, or anything that was related to military defense, the Bush team members were sitting forward and taking notes. But when the discussion turned to FEMA's role in responding to natural disasters, the team members sat back and sipped their coffee. The FEMA official finally asked them, Why aren't you paying more attention? This is what FEMA does. One of the team members smiled indulgently. It's really all just blue smoke and mirrors, he said. If there's a disaster, all you need at FEMA is somebody in a suit handing a check to the state governor in front of the TV cameras.
Yes, changes were coming at FEMA.
The first big change would come in the person of the new FEMA Director, Joseph Allbaugh. Unlike Witt, Allbaugh had no substantial disaster experience, but he had been Bush's presidential campaign manager, so he was clearly aligned with the thinking of the new administration.
One of the first signs of this thinking came in the abolition of Project Impact.
Project Impact was one of Witt's proudest accomplishments at FEMA. Established in 1997, Project Impact brought together local government leaders, volunteer groups, private businesses and individual citizens to assess their communities' vulnerabilities to disaster and develop innovative and cost-effective ways to prevent or reduce the risk of damage before the disaster occurred. According to FEMA:
“… nearly 200 communities and more than 1,000 business partners are involved in Project Impact, which promotes total community involvement and thrives on the energy and partnerships generated by committed individuals, businesses and local leaders. Any community can become a disaster resistant community … building disaster- resistant communities saves lives and prevents damage. In the process, it saves money as well. Current statistics show that for every dollar spent on prevention, at least two dollars are saved on disaster repairs.”
-“Project Impact: Building A Disaster-Resistant Community,” FEMA Press Release Number 1293-71, November 22 1999
What happened next is succinctly described by two top FEMA officials under the Clinton administration, FEMA Chief of Staff Jane Bullock and White House liaison to FEMA George Haddow:
“Upon taking office in 2001, the Bush administration began to deconstruct FEMA. It was assumed that a program like Project Impact, which focused on individual and private-sector responsibility, would thrive under a Republican administration. Instead it was eliminated as not being effective and funding for other natural disaster mitigation programs was dramatically reduced.”
-Bullock and Haddow, “Introduction to Homeland Security,” Elsevier Publishing, 2006, page 508.
Ironically, on February 28, 2001, the day after Project Impact was to be terminated, the Puget Sound area of Washington State was struck by the 6.8 magnitude Nisqually earthquake. The city of Seattle was hard hit, but Seattle had been a Project Impact community and the mayor of Seattle was soon on television stating that Seattle's participation in Project Impact had prevented his city from receiving more serious damage from the quake.
But the facts on the ground didn't really count. In the Alice-in-Wonderland climate in Washington, DC, political agenda trumped reality and Project Impact was terminated.
Throughout 2001 and 2002, the deconstruction of FEMA continued, slice by slice. Under Witt, the agency had built up a strong, professional workforce, which, by all accounts, performed admirably in the response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Nevertheless, The ESFs that had been developed under Witt were de-emphasized, their training neglected and their positions left unfilled. In my own office, a ten-person team charged with federal response planning was allowed to get smaller and smaller by attrition: each time a staffer left to retire or to take a job elsewhere, he or she would not be replaced, so the ten-person planning team gradually became the nine-person team, became the eight-person team …
FEMA staff were able to soldier on for awhile, but in March 2003, the hammer fell. FEMA lost its status as an independent agency and became part of the newly-established Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
In conversations with Congressional staffers years later, I would learn one reason this was done. Many in Congress at the time considered FEMA to be a rare “success story” in the federal bureaucracy and had intended that FEMA would serve as a model for the rest of DHS. DHS would study and then replicate FEMA's approach to emergency management, applying FEMA's systemic (and successful) way of thinking to the war on terror.
But this optimistic scenario did not take into account the Bush administration's apparent indifference (if not outright hostility) to FEMA and its mission. To be sure, FEMA had responded to terrorist incidents as far back as 1995, when we responded to assist with the search for survivors after the Oklahoma City bombing, but FEMA's response focused on rescuing survivors, not on capturing terrorists. FEMA response teams might carry first-aid kits, but they did not carry guns.
In a sense, FEMA was like a fire-and-rescue department, while DHS was like a police department. If FEMA and DHS could have worked together as co-equal partners, America might then have had a doubly strong system that would be truly “all hazards.”
But that was not to be. FEMA was not an equal partner with DHS; FEMA was under DHS, an organization whose leaders and staff made little attempt to hide their disdain for FEMA.
The effects of FEMA going under DHS were felt almost immediately:
Some of FEMA's best and most experienced mid-level executives were abruptly relieved of their duties and reassigned to Homeland Security, which was perceived by many of them as the equivalent of being dropped into a black hole. Some went quietly, others found jobs elsewhere, but either way, FEMA was quietly being stripped of some of its best leaders.
My work on developing a training course for FEMA's disaster response managers was ordered stopped immediately and draft plans for the course were shelved.
- The team of experienced FEMA disaster response planners (of which I was a member), who had begun writing the new National Response Plan (NRP) were ordered to hand our work over to the Transportation Security administration (TSA) for completion. TSA then passed the project on to a private contractor. The contractor, a well-known national consulting firm, would then spend months drafting what many of us at FEMA considered to be a highly unreadable and impractical NRP that would eventually become one of the government's most visible marks of failure in Hurricane Katrina.
Entire components of the agency were transferred away to other parts of Homeland Security and eventually the use of the name “FEMA” itself was prohibited: We were now the “Emergency Preparedness and Response” directorate of Homeland Security, or “EP&R” for short. When I later attended a meeting at Homeland Security, I signed in as “Leo Bosner, FEMA.” I noticed afterward that someone had dutifully crossed out “FEMA” and had written in “EP&R” in its place.
That meeting, my first with people from Homeland Security, was an eye-opener for me. Many of the attendees seemed to be young folks fresh out of college, who appeared pleased and thrilled to be part of this important effort. While I was glad that my new colleagues were so enthusiastic, I had hoped that they might also be a bit more experienced.
But on the other hand, when I introduced myself to one of the more “experienced” Homeland Security staffers and said that I worked in federal response planning, his comment was, “If we do our jobs right and prevent these kinds of incidents [the September 11 attacks], we won't have any need for response.” I then asked him what his plan was for preventing floods, earthquakes and hurricanes.
After that, I was not invited to any more meetings at Homeland Security.
Throughout 2003 and 2004, FEMA's capabilities continued to deteriorate and many of the agency's best professionals left in disgust. Training was cut back. Vacant positions were left unfilled. Contractor-generated disaster response plans bore no connection to reality. (I can still remember one section of the contractor-generated draft National Response Plan that claimed that, in a major disaster, the Department of Homeland Security would “take command” of local responders such as police and fire departments. Our whole office at FEMA had a laugh at that one … in a disaster, local police and fire chiefs might be glad to have some help from the Feds, but they are not eager to hand over “command” of their departments to a bunch of strangers from Washington.)
In March, 2004, former FEMA Director Witt testified at a Congressional hearing. According to Witt:
“I am extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded … I hear from emergency managers, local and state leaders and first responders nearly every day that the FEMA they knew and worked well with has now disappeared. In fact one state emergency manager told me 'it is like a stake has been driven into the heart of emergency management.' … They are concerned that the successful partnership that was built and honed over many years between local, state and federal partners and their ability to communicate, coordinate, train, prepare and respond has gone down hill. And they are at a loss as to how to work with the federal government now and fear for their communities should a catastrophic disaster occur.”
– March 24, 2004, oral testimony of former FEMA Director James Lee Witt before the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations and the House Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Natural Resources and Regulatory Affairs.
If Witt was concerned about FEMA, so were the FEMA employees, who understood clearly that their ability to do their jobs was being undermined daily by mismanagement at the top. Following Witt's Congressional testimony, the FEMA Headquarters employees' union, AFGE Local 4060, sent a six-page letter to selected members of the House and Senate. The letter was drafted by our union's Executive Board (of which I was a member) and signed by the union's President, Pleasant Mann . The letter gave a few examples of the kinds of problems that were occurring regularly at FEMA:
“In one case, FEMA employees from across the country, including myself, were flown to the National Hurricane Center in Florida to attend a training course that, as it turned out, did not yet exist. Cost to the taxpayers for this needless travel: about $30,000. When I complained to the DHS Inspector General [IG] about this waste of funds, I was told by the IG staff that the IG received so many complaints that they could not possibly investigate one where 'only' $30,000 had been wasted. (One FEMA staffer later joked, 'Now we know how much we can get away with!'”)
In another case, FEMA advertised a GS-14 job available, salary in the $100,000 range, for a program manager for the National Disaster Medical System. According to the job advertisement, the successful candidate would have experience in “preparing written reports and analyzing organizational and operational problems.” Nowhere in the advertisement was there any requirement that the applicant know anything about disasters, or anything about medical systems.
- Contractors were continually being brought into FEMA to “observe” and “assist” with agency programs. Full-time FEMA staff were assigned to train and familiarize the contractors with the programs. Then, after his or her training was completed, a job would be advertised with work specifications tailored to the contractor, who would then be hired to supervise the FEMA employees who had provided the original training.
It was becoming crystal clear that FEMA was being packed with political cronies and inexperienced newbies, while long-time emergency managers were being edged aside, and employee morale at the agency was plummeting. In an employee survey that had been conducted by the union in February 2004 and which was cited in Mann's letter to Congress:
60% of the respondents said they would probably leave FEMA and take another job if one were offered.
74% of the respondents said they would probably retire immediately if they were eligible to do so.
- 80% of the respondents said they thought FEMA has become a poorer agency since joining the Department of Homeland Security.
Mann pleaded with the senators and representatives to take action before it was too late. He concluded his letter with the following statement:
“The American people count on FEMA to be there to pick up the pieces after a hurricane, a terrorist attack, or any type of emergency. FEMA employees are willing and able to do that, but our capability is being drained away and it may soon be gone unless timely action can be taken to remedy these problems.”
Mann's words would prove to be sadly prophetic: His letter to Congress was dated June 21, 2004, a little more than a year before Hurricane Katrina would strike the Gulf Coast.
Then, in the fall of 2004, a series of devastating hurricanes hit Florida. With an election looming in November and memories still fresh of Bush senior's 1992 electoral defeat following Hurricane Andrew, the Bush administration seemed determined to show an appearance of decisive action on the part of FEMA.
Florida soon found itself flooded, not with water, but with droves of FEMA employees who had been dispatched to the state – far in excess of the number actually needed to provide disaster assistance. I was one of those sent to Florida, and in one meeting that I attended, those of us who lacked work assignments were told to put on our FEMA hats, rent cars and drive around aimlessly so that “people can see that FEMA is here.” One FEMA employee would later tell me that his “work assignment” consisted mainly in checking on the well-being of friends and family of high-level federal officials.
FEMA top management, especially the political appointees, seemed determined to act quickly and visibly before the election. Staff were told that people must be gotten out of shelters and into more permanent housing before Election Day. In one such hurry-up scenario, I was assigned to quickly help get hundreds of hurricane evacuees moved into a vacant mobile home park.
It was only after we had moved the evacuees in that we learned why the mobile home park had been vacant in the first place: The lake at its center was reported to be infested with alligators. (After a bit of arguing, I was able to persuade FEMA officials to at least fence in the lake before someone's child disappeared.)
Meanwhile, millions of dollars in disaster relief money were being handed out, often with little or no justification. Floridians receiving such quick help from FEMA were thrilled and many of them praised the agency's quick response, but the Florida news media would soon report another side to the rushed distribution of FEMA funds. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
“Florida lawmakers Tuesday called for state and federal investigations into how the government approved about $28 million in Hurricane Frances claims for new furniture, clothes and appliances for residents of Miami-Dade County, which was barely touched by the storm.
“The federal Emergency Management Agency 'made a lot of mistakes and wasted a lot of taxpayer money,' said US Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale. In a letter Tuesday, Shaw asked the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, to conduct a hearing.
“Committee spokesman Ken Johnson said Shaw raised “legitimate concerns,” and that the panel's chairman, Christopher Cox, R-Calif., will review the request.
“Meanwhile, US Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, said he will ask the government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, to investigate. State Sen. Walter “Skip” Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, called for a criminal investigation.”
-“Legislators Urge FEMA Inquiry Over Miami-Dade Payments,” by Sally Kestin and Megan O'Matz, Staff Writers, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, posted November 24, 2004.
Far more FEMA staff than were needed were sent to Florida, and audits would eventually show that far more federal money than was needed was handed out. No matter. FEMA had put on a very expensive (and wasteful) show of disaster relief and Bush had won another four years in office. One FEMA staffer would later ruefully comment, “I feel like I work for a branch of the president's re-election committee.”
But how well would FEMA respond to disasters now that the election was over?