Part Two: FEMA and Disaster: A Look at What Worked and What Didn’t From a FEMA Insider (1993 – 2000)

Part Two FEMA and Disaster A Look at What Worked and What Didnt From a FEMA Insider 1993 - 2000

FEMA Director James Lee Witt visits applicants at the FEMA Disaster Recovery Center in Kinston, North Carolina. Witt along with state and local officials toured the flood ravaged area on September 30, 1999. (Photo: Dave Saville / FEMA News Photo)

In the fall of 1992, following the debacle of Hurricane Andrew and the election of a new administration, it appeared to many that FEMA's days were numbered. One newspaper story told of the difficulty of even finding anyone willing to head the agency. The headline read, “What to Do With FEMA?”

But barely three years later, in 1996, FEMA's reputation would grow to the point where the president would elevate

FEMA Director James Lee Witt to Cabinet status in recognition of how much the agency had improved.

And less than ten years after that, in 2005, FEMA would once again be held up as an object of scorn and ridicule for its many perceived failures in Hurricane Katrina.

How could a single, small government agency be seen as being so terrible … and then so great … and then so terrible again, all in the span of a few years?

When Bill Clinton was elected to the Oval Office in November 1992, the government's fumbled response to Hurricane Andrew was much too recent – and too embarrassing – to be relegated to the back burner. Clinton had narrowly won a somewhat unexpected electoral victory over the incumbent President, George H.W. Bush. Many people thought that Bush's defeat was due in part to his administration's failure in the eyes of the voters to respond effectively after Hurricane Andrew. If so, the new administration would obviously not wish to repeat such an error.

So, what to do with FEMA? Some called for abolishing the agency altogether and giving its mission to the military. Others pointed out that disaster management was a more complex matter than simply sending in the troops and anyway, the military might have one or two other priorities besides disaster response.

Clinton decided to keep FEMA and to name as its head a fellow Arkansan, James Lee Witt. Witt had served Governor Clinton as the Arkansas state director of Emergency Management, and now he would follow Clinton to Washington to perform a similar task at the federal level as FEMA director.

Witt took over as head of FEMA in April 1993. On his first official day on the job, Witt stood by the guards' desk at the entrance of FEMA headquarters shaking hands with the somewhat startled FEMA employees as they trudged toward the elevators: “How do you do, I'm James Lee Witt … How do you do, I'm James Lee Witt … How do you do … ” For employees who had seldom if ever actually met a FEMA director, this was certainly a change.

Over the next eight years, Witt, a high school graduate who had gotten his start repairing roads and bridges in Arkansas, would completely redevelop FEMA. One way of analyzing how he did this is to consider four important “P's” of public administration: People, Programs, Public Relations and Power.

First, “People.” When Witt took over at FEMA in 1993, employee morale could only be described as being at rock bottom. The agency had often been held up to public ridicule during the heyday of nuclear civil defense and now was an object of contempt following its seeming indifference to the plight of Hurricane Andrew's many victims.

But the employees of FEMA felt they were getting a bad rap. Why should they be blamed for the mistakes and failures of their bosses? FEMA employees wanted to support the agency's mission, but found themselves pushed aside or ignored when they tried to do so. Moreover, many of the staff believed that their own bosses lacked management skills, knowledge of disasters or just plain human empathy, and were themselves part of the problem.

On April 14, 1993, after barely two weeks in office, Witt issued a succinct, one-page memo to all FEMA employees. The title of the memo was “Open Door Policy,” and it stated in plain language that any FEMA employee who could not get a problem resolved within his or her normal chain of command was welcome to meet face to face, one on one, with Director Witt. No forms to fill out, no permission required from your boss, no minimum grade level … just dial up Witt's executive assistant and make an appointment. Staff began to meet with Witt and he began to hear firsthand how disorganized things were within the agency.

He was told, for example, that most FEMA employees were neither trained nor rostered ahead of time for disaster duty, meaning that sending FEMA employees to work at a disaster was a bit like a game of pickup basketball. (Immediately after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, for example, when FEMA staff were desperately needed in California, a FEMA supervisor was seen running breathlessly from one employee's desk to the next … “Can you go to California … Can you … How about you?” Any staffer who evenly hesitantly nodded yes was told, “Quick, go home and pack and fly to San Francisco. Someone will tell you what to do when you get there.”)

Witt also heard endless tales of supervisors who abused and mistreated their staff. In one office, ten of the 11 staff members met with Witt, begging to be transferred to a different office and away from their current boss.

As Witt learned more about his people, his people were learning more about him. Witt was businesslike and decisive, but he was also plainspoken and unpretentious. Any staffer running into Witt standing in line at the local deli was free to talk with him, in fact, was expected to. When meeting with employees in his office, Witt would listen intently, often while chewing tobacco and spitting the juice into a foam cup he held in his hand. (One long-time Washington staffer came away from such a meeting much taken aback, believing that Witt had been spitting into his coffee.)

Witt soon made staff understand that FEMA was a team, that team members were expected to do their jobs, that team members were to respect each other and that he, Witt, was not an outsider … he was the team captain.

Morale was visibly improving within the agency, but strengthening the “People” factor at FEMA would not be enough. “Programs” were next. Flip charts of blank paper began appearing next to the elevators, with FEMA employees invited to write their own ideas for strengthening the agency. How can we respond better to disasters? How can we better serve the American people? How can we make FEMA a better agency?

Bit by bit, changes began to appear. For example, the “Federal Response Plan” already existed, but was considered by most to be a “paper plan” only. That is, FEMA offices as well as other federal agencies might make numerous commitments within the plan for what they would do in a disaster, but in reality, would not have sufficient staff or resources to actually carry out those promises. Under Witt, the plan would become real – any and all commitments or promises for disaster response must be backed up by the necessary staff, funds and legal authorities to actually do the job if and when called upon to do so.

The Federal Response Plan, or FRP, would remain the key to FEMA's successful disaster responses for the next eight years. The backbone of the FRP consisted of 12 “Emergency Support Functions,” or ESFs. The ESFs were simply a list of the 12 main types of jobs the federal government might have to perform during a disaster response:

  1. Transportation
  2. Communications
  3. Public Works and Engineering
  4. Firefighting
  5. Information and Planning
  6. Mass Care
  7. Resource Support
  8. Health and Medical Services
  9. Urban Search and Rescue
  10. Hazardous Materials
  11. Food
  12. Energy

From there, each ESF would be assigned a lead federal department or agency having the most expertise in that particular field and disaster response planners within that agency would focus only on that ESF. So, for example, ESF number 1, “Transportation,” would be assigned to the US Department of Transportation (USDOT). Disaster planners at USDOT would be told to plan for all the transportation-related aspects of disaster response, how to transport federal responders to and from the disaster site, how to prioritize the repair of damaged transportation infrastructure in the disaster area, and so forth. But don't worry about medical care, food or electrical power; another agency with another ESF will take care of each of those tasks.

The concept was simple, but it worked. Each federal agency would focus on its own specialty in disasters and FEMA would orchestrate the entire effort like a traffic cop directing traffic to avoid gridlock. In addition to making things better organized, an added benefit was that FEMA would actually economize disaster response by drawing on existing resources of the federal government wherever possible. (A foreign visitor to FEMA, who had seen news reports of the federal government's disaster relief efforts, asked where FEMA kept the airplanes it used to carry in relief supplies after a disaster. The answer: We don't have airplanes at FEMA; we know where to get them.)

At the same time as the FRP was being brought into the real world, FEMA staff themselves were at long last being trained and rostered for disaster duty, so that in the event of a major incident, everyone would know what he or she was expected to do. There would be no more “paper plans” at FEMA and disaster response would no longer be a game of pickup basketball. So, when terrorists bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that April morning in 1995, the plans and the people were in place and the response was quick and effective.

So, “People” and “Programs” were moving ahead. What about “Public Relations”?

Public relations (PR) had long been a disaster in itself at FEMA. An agency swamped with scandals and incompetent leaders was an obvious and tempting target for journalists, so FEMA under previous administrations had kept the press at arm's length, which only increased the suspicion in the news media as to what was going on inside FEMA.

But good or bad PR was more than a minor issue for FEMA. If FEMA was to be effective in carrying out its mission, it had to give advice to the public as well as to state and local government agencies on what to do (or not do) during a disaster. If FEMA had credibility, the advice would in all likelihood be followed. But if not …?

Witt moved boldly, reaching out to the news media and inviting them to send reporters and cameras right into FEMA's emergency operations center during a disaster response so the reporters could see for themselves what was being done. They could even interview FEMA staff if they liked … on camera!

The plan worked. Reporters now had access to FEMA and they could see (and report) what FEMA staff were doing to respond to the flood, the hurricane or whatever disaster was occurring. FEMA staff suddenly felt appreciated, eager to tell the reporters about their work. TV viewers across the country now could see for themselves what FEMA was doing on their behalf.

And Witt himself was there, too, sometimes even participating in live, call-in radio shows during disaster operations, fielding questions that ranged from the intelligent to the absurd. One fearful caller asked Witt if it was true that FEMA staff “carrying guns” had been dispatched to a flood-stricken area! Witt calmly explained, No, FEMA staff were not armed, but once a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center was established to give out financial aid to flood victims, naturally the Center would have armed security guards, as would any public building. Another caller angrily observed that the FEMA staff on camera at the emergency operations center “are all walking around drinking coffee. Why aren't they working?” the caller demanded. Witt patiently explained that it was a shift change, that employees who had been working a 12-hour night shift were now handing off their work to the incoming day shift … and yes, they were drinking coffee while doing so.

Throughout his tenure at FEMA, Witt continued to support an approach to the news media that was as open as possible, knowing full well that it would at times be frustrating, but that in the long run, it would make his job easier and would make FEMA more effective.

So, “People,” “Programs” and “PR.” What about “Power”?

Witt had been Bill Clinton's state disaster director when Clinton was governor of Arkansas, so most people both inside and outside of FEMA considered Witt to be personally close to the president, not just a big donor or someone who was owed a job in Washington, but a person who actually had the president's ear when it came to disasters.

One story that made the rounds was of a senior federal official who balked at supplying FEMA's request for his agency's assets during a hurricane response. Witt was reputed to have phoned the official and said, “If those assets don't arrive soon, the next call you get will be from the White House and you won't like it.” FEMA got the assets.

Was the story true? No one seemed to know for sure, but what was important was people thought the story was true and so FEMA generally got the cooperation it needed from other federal agencies during disasters. As they say in Washington, the perception of power is itself power.

By the end of Witt's tenure at FEMA, the agency had been completely transformed. Staff morale was high, response plans were in place and FEMA enjoyed a reputation for competence and professionalism. Government representatives from other countries regularly trekked to FEMA seeking to learn the agency's formula for success.

While such a “formula” may be difficult to define, much less replicate, 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.
  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.

By the time Witt stepped down at the end of the Clinton administration in January 2001, FEMA was a rare federal agency that enjoyed high regard from the public and high morale among its own staff. When I was asked at the time how FEMA would fare under President-elect George W, Bush, I stated what seemed obvious to many within FEMA: Nothing much was likely to change. Republicans and Democrats alike had come to appreciate the value of a professionally managed, competent emergency management agency. FEMA was a smooth-running machine and all George Bush need do was to appoint a competent, experienced Republican emergency manager to take over from Witt. FEMA would continue to function and would never again sink to the level of incompetence and disrepute it had experienced in the 1980s.

Or so I thought.