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FEMA's perfect storm

Federal disaster relief agency should have seen the political fallout coming



With outrage still building over the excruciatingly inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is facing a political storm of its own.

And, as with Katrina, FEMA should have seen this one coming.

A year ago, during the wave of hurricanes and floods that battered communities across the South, Creative Loafing and six other alternative newsweeklies collaborated on an investigation of FEMA's approach to natural disasters under the Bush administration. The articles showed that FEMA, which during the 1990s had won widespread praise for its handling of natural disasters, was in a severe backslide -- due in part to a shift in resources toward anti-terrorism efforts.

Since 2000, there were clear warning signs that FEMA was destined to falter. Emergency managers from both inside and outside of government said in the story that the administration had drained FEMA's natural disaster programs in a series of policy and budget changes, including:

• A push to privatize some of the agency's key functions. William Waugh, a disaster expert at Georgia State University who has written training programs for FEMA, warned that outsourcing had not served natural disaster programs well. "It's part of a widespread problem of government contracting out capabilities," Waugh told Creative Loafing last year. "Pretty soon, governments can't do things because they've given up those capabilities to the private sector. And private corporations don't necessarily maintain those capabilities."

• The appointment of political cronies rather than disaster experts to top posts. The recently departed Michael Brown had taken FEMA's reins from President Bush's first FEMA director, Joe Allbaugh, Bush's former chief of staff from Texas who had no significant experience managing disasters. "Our professional staff are being systematically replaced by politically connected novices and contractors," Pleasant Mann, a 16-year FEMA veteran and president of the agency's employees' union, warned Congress last summer.

• Cuts to key "disaster mitigation" programs, which minimize the damage caused by natural disasters. Such programs have proven to be cost-effective and life-saving, and included FEMA's Project Impact, a model mitigation program created in 1997 but ended by the White House in 2001. Federal funding of post-disaster mitigation efforts to protect people and property from the next disaster has been cut in half. Now, communities must compete for federal dollars. Last year, New Orleans alternative newspaper Gambit Weekly reported that Jefferson Parish, which was hit by Katrina, had seen FEMA reject no less than three of its recent requests for flood-mitigation grants.

• The Bush administration's 2002 decision to fold FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security. Because of the DHS' emphasis on terrorist threats, the merger has left natural disaster work increasingly marginalized. In testimony to Congress in March 2004, James Lee Witt, who directed FEMA during the agency's heyday in the 1990s, said he was "extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded" because of the merger of FEMA into the DHS. "I hear from emergency managers, local and state leaders, and first responders nearly every day that the FEMA they knew and worked well with has now disappeared." Says Mann: "Before, we reported straight to the White House, and now we've got this elaborate bureaucracy on top of us. And a lot of this bureaucracy doesn't think what we're doing is that important, because terrorism isn't our number one."

A year later, the concerns only have intensified.

The question of how FEMA abandoned thousands of suffering Americans is destined for multiple government probes. A congressional investigation backed by the GOP is already under way. Democrats are calling for an independent probe by a panel similar to the 9/11 Commission. And last week, after President Bush removed FEMA head Brown from the Katrina recovery effort, Brown resigned from the post.

Following the devastation of Katrina, and amid the mounting evidence that the federal government has done far too little, far too late, some of the country's most experienced emergency managers are stepping forward to sound an alarm.

"We are so much less than what we were in 2000," said an unnamed senior FEMA official in a Sept. 1 Washington Post article. Another FEMA veteran said, "It's such an irony I hate to say it, but we have less capability today than we did on Sept. 11."

What's more, in the wake of the most devastating storms in American history, terrorism is still a top priority in Atlanta. Georgia Emergency Management Agency spokesman Buzz Weiss says most of GEMA's funding is directed toward terrorism prevention.

But he also says the agency is often able to use the equipment and personnel paid for with anti-terrorism grants to respond to natural disasters.Weiss points to a search-and-rescue team recently deployed to New Orleans to help recover victims and stabilize buildings -- a team paid for with an anti-terrorism grant.

Of course, Georgia's most populated city is so far inland and above sea level that it's relatively hurricane-proof, says state assistant climatologist Pam Knox. Still, hurricanes often give birth to tornadoes, Knox says, and that's what Atlanta should be worried about. In a season with a lot of rain, like this one, a tornado could uproot trees from overly saturated soil and do substantial damage.

Weiss says that his agency received reports of nine tornadoes Aug. 28, the day the remnants of Hurricane Katrina passed through Georgia.

In the event of a hurricane, tornado, or terrorist attack in Georgia, it works to the state's advantage that the same person head the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and the Georgia Office of Homeland Security, according to Waugh, the GSU disaster expert. Having somebody from GEMA in charge of homeland security at least will help ensure that equal emphasis is placed on terrorism prevention and natural disaster preparedness, Waugh says.

Former Gov. Roy Barnes says that, in the event a natural disaster were to hit Georgia, he's confident that the state's hurricane evacuation plans would work to get people out of harm's way.

But he claims a thin National Guard presence could make responding to a natural disaster difficult.

"In the case of a storm like Katrina, I'm not sure we could ever be that prepared," Barnes says. "This is the worst disaster in my lifetime and I'm not sure that you can ever be prepared for something like that."

John Elliston is a staff writer for Independent Weekly, in Durham, N.C. CL staff writer Coley Ward contributed reporting to this story.

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