Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 11, 2006

Is FEMA still built to fail?

Filed under: DHS News,Preparedness and Response — by Christian Beckner on April 11, 2006

Two former directors of FEMA, James Lee Witt and Mike Brown, responded to last week’s nomination of David Paulison to head FEMA with general praise for his capabilities, but skepticism as to whether anyone can succeed at FEMA today:

“The current structure of FEMA is not going to allow anyone to succeed. It just cannot be done,” said Brown, who was briefly interrupted during a panel discussion at The New School university by a heckler angry about the agency’s failures in New Orleans.

Brown said FEMA lost funding and focus when it was absorbed into a giant Homeland Security bureaucracy focused on preventing terrorist attacks and has since had trouble attracting qualified people to top jobs.

Witt called Paulison “an exceptionally good person” but said if he had been in his shoes, he would have turned the job down.

“Unless they pull FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security and put it back as an independent agency, then he’s asking for failure,” Witt said.

“As long as the Department of Homeland Security has 22 federal agencies and 180,000 employees, it is going to be impossible to make it functional. Impossible,” he added.

Perhaps in hindsight was a mistake to take away FEMA’s independence in 2003 and move it into DHS, but I think it would be an even greater mistake to move it out of DHS today. I still believe that the rationale of the decision to integrate FEMA into DHS in 2003 was correct: taking an all-hazards approach that includes terrorism response. Obviously there have been very significant problems in FEMA’s execution and performance since 2003, but I don’t think the structure is solely to blame. A decision to make FEMA independent again would not miraculously fix all of FEMA’s problems. Instead, I think it’s more important to focus on the micro-level organizational issues within FEMA: the decision-making structures, chains of commands, personal incentive systems, performance metrics, and the influence of cliques and political loyalty within the organization. These are harder to address, but ultimately the kind of things that can make FEMA a first-class organization once more.

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1 Comment »


Comment by William R. Cumming

April 11, 2006 @ 12:38 am

Basically, FEMA had to go into DHS because most of the civil preparedness legal authority had been administered by the agency since its inception in 1979. It is interesting that no hearing post-Katrina has been held in the Congress specifically on the defects in the key legal authority the Robert T. Stafford Act in responding to an event the size of Katrina. An internal project to improve the Stafford Act after Hurricane Andrew ended with the Clinton administration that seemed to believe the fix was in getting the right person for FEMA. It did help. James Lee Witt was competent and also the first elected official to ever run FEMA. However, he had some luck. 12 weeks notice on the 93 Mid-West flooding. And the Northridge Earthquake was in California a state that just wants FEMA money in a disaster and nothing else. Again, implicit in the House report and specifically in the White House Katrina report are some implied or specific fixes. They will cost money and staff to fix. Let’s see where this all goes. No real substantive amendments to the Stafford Act have been submitted to Congress, except for mitigation authority, since its enactment in November 1988. That statute fails to make clear what is financial and non-financial assistance to whom and for how long. The system could be drastically improved just by giving recourse to judicial review by the courts and preventing arbitrary and capricious administration.

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