Lessons From Katrina, Part Two

At the start of the hurricane season in June, media outlets shocked the public with computer-generated images of New York City streets being swept by torrents of ocean water. Though it was pretend stuff, FEMA officials assured that they were well prepared to handle a big disaster. A few weeks later, FEMA Director David Paulison told reporters that the federal government can and will act quickly and decisively in the event of another Katrina-type debacle.

Paulison and FEMA higher-ups had to say that. No federal agency has been battered harder than FEMA for the Katrina fiasco. Paulison aimed to bury that criticism and history. At first glance, he has a case. In the months since Katrina, FEMA has made a dizzying array of changes. It revamped its communication systems, upgraded its web sites, streamlined claims processing, speeded up inspections, and improved disaster coordination efforts with state and local officials.

It also pledged that all disaster housing repair and rebuilding contracts would be subject to the bid process, which was a major sore point. Last year, FEMA took deserved public heat for awarding no-bid contracts worth millions to four big contractors with close ties to the Bush administration.

FEMA made all these changes under extreme duress. And while they are much needed, they don't guarantee that things will be any different if a "big one" hits again. FEMA is still plagued by money problems, staff shortages, a penchant for waste, and its total dependency on the political whims of Homeland Security. Its patchwork $5 billion budget is nowhere near enough to pay the massive costs of housing repair, relocation, and relief aid for the thousands that another Katrina-level disaster would displace.

In March, a House Committee reported that nearly one quarter of its top professionals had quit. In April, a Government Accounting Office report that businesses and relief recipients had scammed FEMA for millions to spend on such "necessities" as expensive massages and tattoos ignited more public fury and even louder Congressional howls to radically shake-up FEMA or scrap it entirely.

Then in early August, Mississippi NAACP officials publicly charged that hundreds of Katrina victims were living in FEMA trailers tainted with formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Despite the complaints of sickness, it took FEMA months to agree to make inspections. Even FEMA's public pledge to toss all contracts out to open bid rang hollow. The four Republican-friendly contractors that got the bulk of FEMA no-bid money to rebuild Katrina devastated Gulf home got the bulk of the competitive bid contract money.

In the past, much of FEMA's chaos and confusion was blamed on Bush's singular obsession with the war on terrorism. This resulted in the massive shift of millions in funds and personnel from disaster relief to Homeland Security. The priority change mortally crippled FEMA's efforts to deal with disaster relief. A year later that hasn't changed. FEMA is still under the tight bureaucratic thumb of Homeland Security. And the priority of Homeland Security is to allocate whatever personnel and resources it needs to fight terrorism. That leaves FEMA on the same shaky ground that it stood a year ago.

That enraged the Senate Homeland Security Committee. In May, it blasted FEMA for its still under whelming capacity to deal with big disasters and flatly called for its abolition. The Senate took the hint, and in July it voted overwhelmingly to abolish FEMA. The call and the vote, however, is more about an image and style change than a fundamental change in the way FEMA does business. The Senate gave no specifics on how or even whether the new agency what operate any differently than FEMA. It proposed no major funding hikes, and did not call for loping it off from Homeland Security. It did not even propose a name change for the "new" agency.

Even if FEMA were an independent, well-oiled, disaster battling machine, that was flush with cash, it would still likely fall apart in the face of a titanic disaster. FEMA must have the firm backing of the White House to act fast to deal with or head off a crisis. That didn't happen in the hours before Katrina hit. An embarrassing video released by AP in February showed that President Bush ignored warnings from then FEMA director Michael Brown that the New Orleans levees could crack. There was no plan for the evacuation of residents, the speedy dispatch of disaster aid, or the deployment of the National Guard. A year later, that lesson of Katrina is still lost. Louisiana state officials were livid at Bush in July when he struck key recommendations from an Army Corp of Engineers report for short-term repairs on the levees.

A disaster of the colossal magnitude of Katrina will almost certainly overwhelm any single government agency. Yet FEMA is still the agency that everyone looks too to cope with disasters. It failed miserably with Katrina. And if another disaster of Katrina magnitude strikes, it could bungle it again.

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