Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 31, 2012

Function and form in emergency management

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on October 31, 2012

HLSWatch was founded as a non-partisan source and forum.  The current stable of posters has endeavored to maintain this tradition, perhaps this rigor…

Still, I hope regular readers know I am a self-declared conservative with libertarian tendencies and a life-long Republican who nonetheless actively worked for candidate Obama in 2008.   I have previously exposed this background to allow you to filter my worldview.  I want you to understand my predispositions and challenge my analysis when you perceive my bias is getting in the way of accurately engaging reality.

It can be difficult to recognize reality.  It is important to try our best and depend on the help of our friends (and others) to do better.

Below is yesterday’s much discussed New York Times’ lead editorial.  I am obliged to enter it into the Homeland Security Watch archives.   The analysis is timely, accurate in its details, and — it seems to me — could contribute to confusion regarding distinctions of form and function.

It is my judgment that the Obama campaign, Obama administration, current FEMA leadership, extant statutes, long-time tradition, and practical priorities of strategy, operations, and tactics all defer to state and local leadership of emergency management: preparedness, mitigation, response and recovery.   On this functional foundation there is no substantive difference. (Prevention is a complicated matter that would require much more time and attention to accurately analyze.)

Form matters.  How functions are defined, organized and directed will have consequences.  Substantive differences exist between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney, between Democrats and Republicans, and between various corners of the EM community on many important issues of form. (See RecoveryDiva for a good aggregation of recent attention to these formal distinctions.) But I perceive in this instance the NYT editorial board is using a formal strawman to argue a functional difference that does not exist.

(The embedded links in the NYT editorial below were in the original online version.)


A Big Storm Requires Big Government

Most Americans have never heard of the National Response Coordination Center, but they’re lucky it exists on days of lethal winds and flood tides. The center is the war room of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where officials gather to decide where rescuers should go, where drinking water should be shipped, and how to assist hospitals that have to evacuate.

Disaster coordination is one of the most vital functions of “big government,” which is why Mitt Romney wants to eliminate it. At a Republican primary debate last year, Mr. Romney was asked whether emergency management was a function that should be returned to the states. He not only agreed, he went further.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.” Mr. Romney not only believes that states acting independently can handle the response to a vast East Coast storm better than Washington, but that profit-making companies can do an even better job. He said it was “immoral” for the federal government to do all these things if it means increasing the debt.

It’s an absurd notion, but it’s fully in line with decades of Republican resistance to federal emergency planning. FEMA, created by President Jimmy Carter, was elevated to cabinet rank in the Bill Clinton administration, but was then demoted by President George W. Bush, who neglected it, subsumed it into the Department of Homeland Security, and placed it in the control of political hacks. The disaster of Hurricane Katrina was just waiting to happen.

The agency was put back in working order by President Obama, but ideology still blinds Republicans to its value. Many don’t like the idea of free aid for poor people, or they think people should pay for their bad decisions, which this week includes living on the East Coast.

Over the last two years, Congressional Republicans have forced a 43 percent reduction in the primary FEMA grants that pay for disaster preparedness. Representatives Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and other House Republicans have repeatedly tried to refuse FEMA’s budget requests when disasters are more expensive than predicted, or have demanded that other valuable programs be cut to pay for them. The Ryan budget, which Mr. Romney praised as “an excellent piece of work,” would result in severe cutbacks to the agency, as would the Republican-instigated sequester, which would cut disaster relief by 8.2 percent on top of earlier reductions.

Does Mr. Romney really believe that financially strapped states would do a better job than a properly functioning federal agency? Who would make decisions about where to send federal aid? Or perhaps there would be no federal aid, and every state would bear the burden of billions of dollars in damages. After Mr. Romney’s 2011 remarks recirculated on Monday, his nervous campaign announced that he does not want to abolish FEMA, though he still believes states should be in charge of emergency management. Those in Hurricane Sandy’s path are fortunate that, for now, that ideology has not replaced sound policy.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

October 31, 2012 @ 8:43 am

Well Phil I buy a pitchfork every month so the peasants will be armed when they storm the Bastille.
Fortification of the Seat of Government [feared by the Founding Fathers] by the immense widening of the Capitol Beltway that opened in 1964! About the time the Imperial Presidency got going with its secrecy shrouded programs and activities to conceal not just waste, fraud,and abuse from the citizens and voters but to allow unreviewed activities even beyond the ken of the Congress.

That said of course the interesting timing and reach of the editorial of the NY Times is of some interest.

By statute, the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act [Public Law 100-707] that revised in part, superceded in part, and supplemented in part the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 [Public Law 93-288] makes FEMA primarily a provider of bucks and information, hopefully effectively and efficiently. FEMA staff has few technical skills and those with them are viewed as aliens to the FEMA culture. Perhaps the principal oversight of that statutory scheme by the Public Works Committees of the Congress is the problem since FEMA is heavily impacted by science and technology.

Thus, what the editorial reveals of the NY Times is largely ignorance as it also reveals the ignorance of the Romney Adminstration [not yet elected] and the fact it is largely ignorant of the fact that FEMA to some degree helps mask lack of STATE capability [although FEMA is supposed to continuously verify that capaibility] and STATES and their local governments negilgence, sometimes gross negiligence in the failure to recognize risks and threats and vulnerabilities.


Comment by William R. Cumming

October 31, 2012 @ 8:48 am

An of course I would be remiss if I failed to identify the fundamental flaw in FEMA’s design and that is to resolve the question of whether FEMA with its lack of technical and other staff, and resources, is the ultimate FEDERAL SAFETY NET FOR PHYSICAL DAMAGES TO DOMESTIC RESOURCES OR WHERE OTHER CABINENT DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES AND THE STATES AND THEIR LOCAL GOVERNMENTS DECLINE OR FAIL TO PROTECT THE PUBLIC AND PRIVATE PROPERTY?


Comment by William R. Cumming

October 31, 2012 @ 9:23 am

Should a large-scale area be contaminated by chemicals or radiation FEMA has almost no role in the response or recovery. It would fund other departments and agencies that have such a role through its mission assignment process. The real question underlying this system of course is should agencies and departments with assigned statutory responsibilities for technical response use their own authority and funding first and only spend disaster money as a last resort?
The best example of the problem is the USACOE which thrives on evading the normal cost/benefit rules that restrict it for flood control structures by using FEMA funds? During my time at FEMA the USACOE often charged 200% overhead for its FEMA mission assignments! No wonder USACOE loves FEMA.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 31, 2012 @ 11:23 am

NY Times has a blog on role of FEMA and should it change!

Comment by Dan OConnor

October 31, 2012 @ 3:51 pm

Here is another proposed point of view;



October 31, 2012 @ 4:51 pm

FEMA and its many political appointees will again fail in truly addressing such a calamity.

It is state and local government and the local folks and businesses who will reestablish these dessimated communities and as I had forecasted this event a a week before, another low pressure will develop along the coast in another week or so and whiel it will be a rain event inland, more snows to the northwest and with promise of a cycilcal change more than a global warming scenario, with a coller Pacific and a warmer Atlantic much like the 1950’s and 1960’s, I believe that rebulding efforts will be slow as a result of mere cold, snow and ice and all must be ready for the long haul and hope for no other substantial nor’easters this coming winter!

Fortunately here on Cape Cod, we were dodged the bullet in such calmity at least this time around.

God Bless us all!

Christopher Tingus
Cape Cod

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 31, 2012 @ 8:19 pm

Thanks Dan for the link and interesting article with some good points in its analysis. Unfortunately many of the premises of the article are false and although common misunderstandings many believe are accurate.

One quick correction! Many researchers have published the “fact” that President George H.W. Bush in losing the 1992 election lost the electoral votes of Florida. He did not lose Florida.

Andrew made landfall in late Florida and despite the initial 10 days of delayed response, largely because the President himself flew over relatively unaffected areas, FEMA ended up with a terrific performance in Andrew and Floridians rewarded the President with their votes.

And many forget that Hurricane Andrew was in fact a Category 5 on Saffir-Simpson and imagine if Hurricane Sandy had been more than a Cat 1!

I use the error on the 1992 Florida vote as a litmus test of the quality of the underlying reserach and unfortunately very little quality academic or gray literature research has been done on FEMA, its programs, functions, and activities.

I have tried from time to time on this blog indicated policy recommendations that I offered that were not considered or rejected.Some were minor. For example, I encouraged an Associate Director for State and Local Programs to allow FEMA to supply generators in disasters when he was told by other officials,including legal officials, that FEMA could not do so. I proved to him that he had discretion to do so and would defend him to the last before Congress or the courts. Thus, FEMA since 1990 has been in the business of supplying generators. I believe that decision will prove again meritorius in Hurricane Sandy response.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 31, 2012 @ 8:20 pm

Correction: Andrew made landfall in late August!

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