Friday, April 28, 2006

If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is getting set to release its entry in the summer reading sweepstakes, an 800-page report titled Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared.

Leaving aside the semantics issue (since Katrina hit eight months ago, and we weren’t prepared then, well. . . it’s kind of like saying “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead”), I think we can all pretty much agree at this point that FEMA and Feds fucked up. . . and I think most of us know why.

Most of us, that is, except committee Chair, Republican Susan Collins (ME) and ranking member and nominal Democrat Joe Lieberman (CT). “FEMA is discredited, demoralized, and dysfunctional,” said Collins with Tail-slapper Joe by her side, “It is beyond repair.”

The two then proposed dismantling FEMA and replacing it with a new organization called the National Preparedness and Response Authority (yes, NPRA. . . or, as I’m sure we’ll all love saying, “nipra”), an agency that would remain inside DHS, but somehow gain direct access to the President during a crisis (like that would make any difference).

Well, without tarrying too long on how another bureaucratic reorganization won’t make a bit of difference because everything the Bush Administration does is PR (instead of POLICY) driven, let me just say this: FEMA isn’t beyond repair!

Sure we could say “FEMA is broken,” but it’s not broken like a thing gets broken. To go a step further, as someone recently said (and, forgive me, I can’t remember where I heard this), FEMA is not like a firehouse; there aren’t guys sitting around reading the paper and flipping burgers waiting for the bell to ring so they can slide down a pole.

Indeed, FEMA is an agency, and, what’s more, it’s a coordinating agency. They are there to work with firehouses, and local authorities, and charities, and, if need be, the National Guard, and other governmental organizations, like the SBA. . . . Yes, the list can be long—which is why we have FEMA, and why FEMA has to fully funded and staffed by people who know what the hell to do when there is a disaster.

And we don’t need an 800-page report to tell us this—all we need is a memory. Back in 1992, there was a Bush in the White House and a massive hurricane crossing the gulf. That hurricane was called Andrew, and that Bush Administration’s FEMA did, by all accounts, an awful job responding.

Andrew, and Hugo three years earlier, probably cost George the First votes, and Bill Clinton was smart enough to realize that. When Clinton took his seat in the Oval Office in 1993, he didn’t rename or rip up FEMA, he simply appointed James Lee Witt, a veteran emergency manager, as its new head, and gave him cabinet-level access and a real budget.

When the Clinton-era FEMA was confronted with the Northridge Quake and the Oklahoma City bombing, most say it responded well. Leadership and real policy work “fixed” FEMA.

So, FEMA isn’t beyond repair any more than the presidency is beyond repair. All it takes is leadership, competence, responsibility, and (in FEMA’s case) a little money.

It is clear that every Representative and Senator up for re-election is under pressure to do something—anything—to show that they haven’t forgotten Hurricane Katrina; this would be my suggestion:

  • Restore FEMA’s status as an independent agency outside of the Kafkaesque Department of Homeland Security.
  • Stop playing games with FEMA’s budget—calculate what it really costs to staff this agency with professionals, and give them the tools to do their jobs.
  • Restore the Clinton-era chain of command during crisis periods.
  • And, as Senators, exercise your role of advise and consent to make sure that whomever is appointed to head FEMA is actually qualified before you vote to confirm him or her (Michael Brown’s hearing for Deputy Director of FEMA lasted all of 42 minutes and was attended by only four senators—there was no hearing at all when he was promoted to the top spot).

Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Well, it shouldn’t be. . . or wouldn’t be if there were competent, responsible leadership in the Senate, House, and White House. And, it would be cheaper and less time-consuming than holding hearings, writing reports (or reading them, for that matter), reordering the boxes on an org chart, or scraping off those four letters from all those buildings.


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