An Unemotional and Apolitical Examination of FEMA
By: Jim Kouri, CPP
The size and strength of Hurricane Katrina resulted in one of the largest natural disasters in our nation’s history and raised major questions about America’s readiness and ability to respond to deadly and devastating disasters.
Adding to the catastrophic storm and flood was the unbridled emotionalism displayed by responders, leaders and the news media, as well as the shrill politicalization of the event which did nothing to mitigate the suffering of tens of thousands who remained in New Orleans during the hurricane.
The US Congress’ investigative arm, the General Accountability Office, possesses an enormous body of completed and ongoing work on a range of issues relating to all phases of the preparation, response, recovery, and rebuilding efforts related to hurricane Katrina as well as a wealth of historical experience in reviewing the federal government’s response to disasters and catastrophic events in the past.
A great deal of attention has been focused on lessons learned from the 2005 hurricane season and many recommendations have been advanced on how to improve the nation’s preparedness and ability to effectively respond to catastrophic disasters. Congress may wish to consider many factors as it determines what changes to make, including those of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s organizational placement, to improve the nation’s readiness and ability to respond effectively to major disasters, including catastrophic disasters, whether they be man-made (terrorist attacks) or natural (hurricanes, earthquakes).
Because of FEMA’s performance during hurricane Katrina, questions have been raised regarding the agency’s organizational placement, including whether FEMA should be disbanded and functions moved to other agencies, remain within the Department of Homeland Security, or again become an independent agency.
The history of the federal government’s approach to emergency management reflects experience with specific disasters and differences in opinion regarding the most effective structure for this function.
Prior to 1979, emergency management was led by the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration within the Department of Housing and Urban Development. FEMA was established as an independent agency in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter. Based on recommendations following the response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, FEMA was elevated to a cabinet level agency whose director reported to the President. In March 2003, FEMA became part of the Department of Homeland Security.
A number of factors may be ultimately more important to FEMA’s success in responding to and recovering from future disasters than its organizational placement. These include: the clarity of FEMA’s mission and its related responsibilities and authorities; the experience of and training provided to FEMA leadership; the adequacy of its human, financial, and technological resources; and the effectiveness of planning, exercises, and related partnerships.
One of the problems experienced in the aftermath of Katrina was the misunderstanding and unrealistic expectations of the American people, as well as some in congress, as to the actual role FEMA plays in disaster management. Was FEMA designed to be a first-response, hands-on organization? Or was it organized to be an agency of bean-counters and “claims adjustors” who disperse emergency funds to devastated areas in the country?
While a myth has been created that FEMA has a history of poor response to disasters, the truth is, until Katrina, FEMA has a record of success in its limited role. It’s one prior failure — which occurred during the Clinton Administration — was its slow response to the victims of Hurricane Floyd, especially in the Carolinas.
As Congress considers changing FEMA’s organizational placement, it may also wish to consider key issues affecting organizational structure, including: the relevance of FEMA’s mission to the broader organization in which it resides; the extent to which goals and objectives are shared; the ability to leverage effectively the resources of other agencies and programs; and gains in efficiency and effectiveness through eliminating duplications and overlaps.
The nation’s next major response and recovery challenge, whether natural or man-made, will provide another important test of FEMA’s efforts to improve its preparedness and capability. Although organizational structure is important, future success is likely to principally depend upon focus, skilled leadership, clear roles and responsibilities, operational plans realistically exercised, and key resources appropriately and effectively deployed.
FEMA must also promulgate its actual role in disaster management in order for state and local governments to regulate their expectations.
Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police and he’s a staff writer for the New Media Alliance (thenma.org). He’s former chief at a New York City housing project in Washington Heights nicknamed “Crack City” by reporters covering the drug war in the 1980s. In addition, he served as director of public safety at a New Jersey university and director of security for several major organizations. He’s also served on the National Drug Task Force and trained police and security officers throughout the country. Kouri writes for many police and security magazines including Chief of Police, Police Times, The Narc Officer and others. He’s a news writer for TheConservativeVoice.Com. He’s also a columnist for AmericanDaily.Com, MensNewsDaily.Com, MichNews.Com, and he’s syndicated by AXcessNews.Com. He’s appeared as on-air commentator for over 100 TV and radio news and talk shows including Oprah, McLaughlin Report, CNN Headline News, MTV, Fox News, etc. His book Assume The Position is available at Amazon.Com. Kouri’s own website is located at http://jimkouri.us.
Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police and he's a columnist for The Examiner (examiner.com) and New Media Alliance (thenma.org). In addition, he's a blogger for the Cheyenne, Wyoming Fox News Radio affiliate KGAB (www.kgab.com). Kouri also serves as political advisor for Emmy and Golden Globe winning actor Michael Moriarty. He's former chief at a New York City housing project in Washington Heights nicknamed "Crack City" by reporters covering the drug war in the 1980s. In addition, he served as director of public safety at a New Jersey university and director of security for several major organizations. He's also served on the National Drug Task Force and trained police and security officers throughout the country. Kouri writes for many police and security magazines including Chief of Police, Police Times, The Narc Officer and others. He's a news writer and columnist for AmericanDaily.Com, MensNewsDaily.Com, MichNews.Com, and he's syndicated by AXcessNews.Com. Kouri appears regularly as on-air commentator for over 100 TV and radio news and talk shows including Fox News Channel, Oprah, McLaughlin Report, CNN Headline News, MTV, etc. To subscribe to Kouri's newsletter write to COPmagazine@aol.com and write "Subscription" on the subject line.