Reforming FEMA

Even before the staggering problems in bringing relief to New Orleans were exposed, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was one of Washington’s favorite whipping boys and perennial target of political scorn and derision.

With a payroll of 2,500 federal workers and an annual budget of $664 million, FEMA isn’t a giant on Washington’s political scene. But the little agency has earned a notorious reputation for its fearsome red tape and slow reaction to disasters when lives are in danger. Its employees have been ridiculed as incompetents.

FEMA can work.

Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., says he was pleased by the initial response by FEMA to the four hurricanes that hit his state last year. He recalled that the response worked well because Florida Gov. Jeb Bush declared early evacuations, vehicles that might be needed for rescues were pre-positioned with local police ready to go into operation and plans were made to combat looting. “The pre-planning was extraordinary,” he said.

But that initial success weathering the storm was overshadowed by how disastrously FEMA handled the post-hurricane recovery, Foley said. He is still infuriated at how the agency funneled $30 million to Miami-Dade County, which wasn’t impacted by the hurricane winds, while FEMA refused to pay for debris removal in the hardest-hit counties.

There were other problems, too, involving questionable hiring practices of FEMA-financed contractors, who employed people with criminal records as damage inspectors, and payments made for 300 funerals, when the death toll from the storm was 125.

The congressman said he’s never gotten an explanation for how these problems happened. “It was the most frustrating thing,” Foley said. “They wouldn’t accept any level of scrutiny or examination whatsoever.”

Foley recalled that he and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, confronted then-FEMA director Michael Brown, who insisted that “none of it is true.” Foley said they pointed to Florida newspaper reports about the problems and noted the stories seemed true, but Brown insisted they weren’t accurate. “It was the most bizarre feeling,” Foley said.

After Katrina, FEMA needs to be streamlined and refocused and made independent of the Department of Homeland Security, Foley said. He wants someone to run the agency like the no-nonsense Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, the commander of active-duty troops in relief efforts in New Orleans. “We need someone who says ‘Forget the rule book, get the people,’ ” he said.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., is just as exasperated with FEMA’s record during last year’s Florida efforts to funnel relief to hard-hit areas. “It was not because they did not have enough money. We appropriated $13.5 billion _ that is with a ‘b’ _ for hurricane relief,” he recalled.

Nelson is furious that FEMA hired damage inspectors who took advantage of their position to buy storm-destroyed homes at rock-bottom prices, then turned around and sold them in Florida’s real estate boom. He said it’s common sense that FEMA prohibit inspectors from getting rich from other people’s misery, but it took legislation this year to prohibit the practice.

Other reforms for FEMA are in the works.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is a longtime supporter of FEMA who headed a task force that revamped the agency in 1992.

She said she also supported efforts that made FEMA part of the new Department of Homeland Security when the federal agency was created in 2002. After 9/11, it made sense to put agencies responsible for dealing with disasters in one place, but she now says that didn’t work.

She said it only meant FEMA “lost its focus, it lost its way, and it definitely lost its leadership.” Mikulski said she is putting together legislation that would make FEMA independent of Homeland Security.

Many critics say the problems with FEMA are deeper than reshuffling Washington’s bureaucratic structures, and some suggest turning FEMA’s responsibilities over to a new disaster-relief unit run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

FEMA’s problems are well known. Since 1999, what is now called the Government Accountability Office has issued 120 reports on problems with FEMA and federal disaster relief programs. They range from uncoordinated spending of $10.5 billion in assistance for “first responders” that FEMA gave state and local governments from 2002 to 2005, to the recurring problem of government agencies failing to communicate with one another _ a critical issue highlighted in the response to 9/11.

Even the withering criticism isn’t new.

“The sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I’ve ever worked with,” complained then-Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., after the agency waited 10 days to open an office in Charleston, S.C., to handle disaster claims after Hurricane Hugo hit the city in 1989. FEMA “could screw up a two-car parade,” said then-Rep. Norman Mineta, D-Calif., after the agency bungled relief efforts for 1989’s Loma Prieta earthquake. Mineta is now the U.S. secretary of transportation.

Patrick Basham, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, said the government can fix one flaw by no longer using FEMA as a dumping ground for political cronies. The appointment of Brown as head of FEMA, despite his lack of experience in disaster management, isn’t without precedent, Basham said. “(President Bill) Clinton did the same thing,” he said.

Basham said a more central problem is that FEMA is spread too thin, responsible not only for coordinating relief from hurricanes, but also after 9/11 for helping recover cities hit by terrorists, or devastated by earthquakes, tornados or fires. During the Cold War, about half of FEMA’s budget went to so-called “Continuity of Government” programs involved in relocating and operating the government from underground cities in the wake of a Soviet nuclear attack. Interest in the program subsided after the Cold War ended, but was revived after 9/11 and once again put under FEMA control.

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, is in favor of dissolving FEMA, but Basham said he doesn’t think that is politically possible. He said the political winds in Washington today favor pouring more money into FEMA in hopes that will make it work, rather than making the agency more efficient and eliminating red tape.

“It’s the nature of governments and bureaucracies to grow,” he said. “The problem is we’ve allowed the federal government to evolve to the point where it is inherently incapable of responding.”

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)