FEMA and the Role of Government

“that government, no matter what its failures in the past and in times to come for that matter, government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind. No one…gets left behind. An instrument of good”  Toby Ziegler, The West Wing, “He Shall From Time To Time”, Season 1, Ep. 11

Ron Paul has had some interesting ideas on the role of government throughout his career.  Hurricane Irene prompted him to espouse this whopper.  Essentially, Paul believes that FEMA should be eliminated – it is inefficient, bureaucratic, underfunded, and has created a “culture of dependency.”

No State government or private corporation could every be expected to handle this.

FEMA isn’t perfect, but I think most people can agree that when there is a disaster the federal government is best positioned to handle it. Why? Because during a disaster you need someone in absolute and complete charge who can take a broad view of the situation and has intimate knowledge of all the resources available.

Members of the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Task Force assist residents impacted by Hurricane Katrina.

Disasters are national problems with national solutions.  We come together in the wake of disasters to help each other out – and, at its best, that is what government is.  I and dozens of others hauled, sorted, and packed emergency supplies at my church to be shipped to the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina.  Those supplies were a small fraction collected by the Methodist Church, yet another small player in the effort to restore and rebuild.  Those efforts had to be coordinated by someone. FEMA organized and distributed supplies and volunteers – amassed by the Red Cross, religious organizations, and Wal-Mart among other corporations – to create the largest domestic relief effort in the history of our country.  State and local governments, non-profit charities, and private corporations were the bricks and mortar of the effort, but New Orleans needed an architect too.  Say what you will about its largesse or its bureaucracy – FEMA, even at its lowest point, is an amazing organization.

The story of how FEMA has developed over the years provides interesting insight to how government works and doesn’t.  Nixon created FEMA as the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration, a unit of HUD, in 1973.  At the time, more than 100 different agencies would vie for jurisdiction in a disaster. Congress and the President both expanded the agency’s jurisdiction and budget over the years to reduce that competition.  (A detailed history can be found here and here.)  Three events are important milestones: 1) in 1996, Bill Clinton elevated the FEMA director to his cabinet; 2) FEMA became a part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2001; and 3) Katrina and its aftermath.

Do you remember all of those botched disasters back in the ’90s?  Neither do I. The reason is that FEMA was a cabinet level position, had absolute control over disaster response, and was charged with creating “A Nation Prepared.”  It worked.

After September 11th, FEMA got caught in the crossfire of how to respond to emergencies.  That is not incredibly unreasonable; it is the mission of the agency, after all.  However, in order to “streamline” the process, FEMA was subsumed into DHS and once again had to vie with other agencies for budgets and jurisdiction over preparing for and responding to disasters.  Michael Brown, FEMA’s director under President G.W. Bush, (yes, that one), went so far as to say,

“the shift would make a mockery of FEMA’s new motto, “A Nation Prepared,” and would “fundamentally sever FEMA from its core functions,” “shatter agency morale,” and “break longstanding, effective and tested relationships with states and first responder stakeholders.” Quoting Washington Post

In response to Katrina, Congress heard the report  and passed the Post Katrina Emergency Management Control Act. The Act did many things, but chiefly, it brought many of FEMA’s old preparedness functions back into its portfolio and created a new deputy whose only responsibility is to oversee the agency’s preparedness.

Perhaps it was the experience with Katrina that led us all to batten down the hatches for Irene.  It is true that Hurricane Irene more closely resembled a really large rainstorm than a huge disaster.  There were minimal deaths, minimal property damage, and the power outages were relatively small in scope and duration.  Perhaps we overreacted.  But I think that was because we got smart, changed the law, and maybe got a little lucky rather than because the government overreacted.

In the end, the federal government can’t buy a blanket, fill the refrigerator, or file an insurance claim for every person flooded, blown or burned out of their house in a disaster.  But what it can do is organize and direct all the organizations that are equipped to provide those services.  Recent history tells us that this works best when one agency is empowered and prepared to lead in the aftermath of a disaster.  No matter what Ron Paul thinks about the role of government in daily life, we should be grateful that FEMA’s reforms are making sure that this time, no one’s getting left behind.

Billy is the humble president of WCL Democrats. He speaks to whoever will listen at Mandamus Be Damned

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One response to “FEMA and the Role of Government

  1. Aw, this was a really good post. Finding the time and actual effort to make a very good article… but what can I say… I hesitate a whole lot and never seem to get nearly anything done.

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