Does organization trump leadership in disaster management?
Had former, unlamented FEMA director Michael Brown been in the Cabinet when Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast, would he have performed any differently? Would he have had a plan? Would he have implemented it effectively? All we know for certain is he did not act, Homeland Security did not act and government at all levels was laggard in responding.
Count me among the skeptics on the idea of making FEMA a cabinet-level agency again. I can understand how the loss of cabinet status lessened FEMA’s prestige and access after 2003, but that’s not a sufficient excuse for their performance in Katrina. As the Post recounted last week, FEMA was already losing its effectiveness during the period from 2001-2003 before it was moved into DHS. I think the heart of the problem was leadership – and the focal point of any solution needs to also be focused on leadership, and finding ways to bring back the sense of mission and purpose that had made FEMA a model agency under James Lee Witt. If the plan for FEMA focuses on moving the boxes around, then there’s a high probability that what we’ll end up with is the “appearance of action” rather than “fixing the problem.”