Where Was FEMA?

The hurricane leveled an enormous swath of land, leaving 200,000 people homeless and more than 1 million without electricity. Storm victims stood for days in the hot sun, desperate for food, clean water, shelter.

Looting spread, and law and order broke down. But after three days of such chaos, the Federal Emergency Management Agency _ which is in charge of coordinating federal disaster relief _ was all but invisible.

Familiar though that scenario sounds, it is a description of what happened in 1992, after Hurricane Andrew devastated parts of the Miami area. After that debacle, FEMA was fundamentally remade into an agency that, as recently as last year’s hurricane season, drew plaudits for its efficiency and fast action.

What happened?

Even FEMA critics say that the enormity of Hurricane Katrina’s impact greatly dwarfs Andrew’s.

Where Andrew pounded 1,000 square miles that were concentrated in just one county, Katrina has left 90,000 square miles in three Gulf states in shambles. Now, in Mississippi alone, 52 counties have been declared disaster areas. In Louisiana alone, at least twice the number of Andrew’s victims are estimated to have lost their homes.

But despite the unprecedented reach of Katrina’s damage, even President Bush said Friday that, four days after the Category 4 storm struck, the federal relief effort has fallen far short.

“The results are not acceptable,” Bush said, during a tour of the battered region Friday.

Eric Holdemann, director of Seattle’s office of emergency management, and other experts place the blame squarely in the Bush administration’s lap. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the focus of the nation’s emergency response apparatus _ including FEMA _ zeroed in on hardening the country against terrorism and developing plans to respond to weapons of mass destruction and bomb attacks.

As a result of that preoccupation, Holdemann said, natural-disaster response lost out. “Those of us in the business of dealing with (natural) emergencies find ourselves with no national leadership and no mentors,” he said.

In July, new Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff announced a sweeping reorganization of his department, which included the shuttling of FEMA under a new “preparedness” directorate to be created.

The National Emergency Management Association, an industry group, and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs blasted the move as burying FEMA under an unneeded and counterproductive layer of bureaucracy. Holdemann described the action as “all but dismantl(ing)” FEMA, which he and others had praised for years as a model of good government.

It wasn’t always thus.

When FEMA was created in 1979, its focus was preparing for, and responding to, a nuclear attack. After Hurricane Andrew, President Bill Clinton elevated FEMA’s director to Cabinet status and hired Jamie Lee Witt, Arkansas’ respected former emergency management director. Witt is credited with transforming the moribund agency, laden for years with political patronage appointees, into a first-rate operation.

That reputation held through the 1993-94 Midwest floods, a dozen hurricanes and even the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, according to Paul Light, a New York University professor who is an expert on bureaucracy.

As recently as last year, FEMA was roundly praised for its fast and efficient reaction to a string of hurricanes that whomped the Treasure Coast and other sections of Florida. The only hot water FEMA had found itself in recently came from doling out $31 million in disaster benefits to Florida victims who didn’t even live in the counties hit by the storms.

Now, the agency is again at the center of a firestorm. A too-slow, confused and otherwise ineffective response by FEMA has allowed New Orleans to descend into a Dark Ages nightmare, critics say.

In their own defense, FEMA director Michael Brown and other officials say they have done the best possible under extraordinarily dire circumstances. Impassable roads, levee breaks, snipers, knocked-out communications, thousands of residents who didn’t evacuate and an unmanageable roster of officials with whom to coordinate in three states_ Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama _ all conspired to create a perfect storm of disaster, they say.

Add in a largely poor city like New Orleans, where the harsh side of the “Big Easy” culture that delights millions of tourists each year has taken its toll over the decades, and the task is tougher. The infrastructure has been steadily crumbling for years, and public corruption has sapped repeated efforts at reform. Three of Louisiana’s top emergency-management officials are now under indictment, and U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, a Democrat who represents New Orleans, is under investigation for allegedly using his congressional influence in business dealings.

Brown pointed to relief efforts in Mississippi, where complaints have been far fewer, as evidence that _ under what passes for “normal” disasters _ the FEMA response has been adequate.

Perhaps, but overall, FEMA has fallen flat into the muck left behind by Katrina, said Jane Bullock, who was a top agency official during Witt’s tenure.

“It was not organized as well as it should have been, and we are now paying the price,” she said. “They obviously didn’t anticipate some very big problems.”

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)shns.com)