A Diminished FEMA Scrambles to the Rescue

Times Staff Writer

In 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency concluded that a catastrophic hurricane in New Orleans was “among the three likeliest

In the years that followed, however, instead of receiving a mandate to marshal the resources needed to handle such a disaster, FEMA saw its standing within the federal government downgraded sharply and its mission pushed lower on the priorities list as the Bush administration focused on the threat of terrorism.

Previously a Cabinet-level agency that reported directly to the president, FEMA was folded into the vast bureaucracy of the newly created Department of Homeland Security. Both resources and energy devoted to preparing for natural disasters were reduced, giving way to the bureaucratic demands of organizing the home-front war on terrorism.

Similarly, over the last three years, as the White House gave top priority to spending on defense and national security, the Army Corps of Engineers saw its funding requests for flood control projects along the Louisiana coast slashed. In particular, a major program to strengthen and increase the New Orleans levee system -- the failure of which left most of the city under water -- all but ground to a halt in 2004 because of budget constraints.

On Wednesday, amid complaints from local leaders that the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina has been slow and uncoordinated, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff moved to take charge -- ordering the implementation of a new national emergency response plan.


But Chertoff’s action, the primary effect of which was to make the federal response to Katrina a Cabinet-level responsibility, appeared to be little more than a return to the past -- giving such emergencies the status they had before FEMA was downgraded.

“We are historically back to where we were before,” said Mark Ghilarducci, a former official in the California Office of Emergency Management.

It’s not that terrorism is not a serious threat, experts such as Ghilarducci said, it’s that the federal government’s approach needs to be balanced. “We’re losing sight of the fact that we’ve got earthquakes, fires, floods, and hurricanes” occurring on a continual basis, the former California disaster official said.

Reflecting that feeling, the mayor of New Orleans and some other local political leaders have complained that the federal government’s response was sometimes slow and uncoordinated. “There is way too many

Nagin and others noted that by Wednesday the Army Corps of Engineers had not yet closed the gaps in the levees around the city. They also complained about the difficulty of coordinating activities scattered among numerous agencies.

Nagin said progress was finally being made on bringing all the command centers together “so that we can get all the varying opinions in one room and start to work, you know, in synergy.”

“I can see a lack of coordination,” said Ghilarducci, who noted that Chertoff’s announcement on Wednesday came days after the president signed emergency disaster declarations for Louisiana, freeing up emergency funds. “Three days to determine this is a big deal?” Ghilarducci is a vice president of James Lee Witt and Associates, a crisis management firm founded by the head of FEMA under President Clinton.

Critics fault the added bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security for the slow start, but they also cite the department’s focus on terrorism. “When Homeland Security came, everything became terrorism,” said Bob Freitag, a 20-year veteran of FEMA who now teaches at the University of Washington. “There’s no balance.”

Around the country, some local officials said the emphasis on terrorism had bitten into the time and resources they could devote to preparing for threats they considered more likely to occur. Eric Holdeman, director of the King County Office of Emergency Management in Washington state, said his staff spent the bulk of its time trying to sort through the paperwork that Homeland Security generated.

“Prior to 9/11, we were spending 75% of our time planning, training and exercising for natural hazards,” mostly earthquakes, he said. “Today, that’s down to 25%. The rest of the time is spent administering Homeland Security grants. If we had that type of event here, we wouldn’t be nearly ready.”

Under its new organization chart, Homeland Security has assigned FEMA’s preparation and planning functions to a new Office of Preparedness and Response, which is slated to be bolstered by a chief medical officer and a fire division. FEMA will focus on response and recovery.

“Focusing narrowly is going to be vital,” said Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke, who said the approach would allow for great focus. “We’re talking about improving our response to acts of terror or natural disaster.”

But Holdeman said that because FEMA no longer dealt with preparedness he had no reason to be in touch with the agency. “They have no relevancy for me anymore,” he said.

For some outside experts, who say preparation and planning are cornerstones for effective response and recovery in disasters, dividing the two functions and possibly reducing communications among officials responsible for them is a major problem.

The latest turn in Washington’s attitude toward preparing for natural disasters is part of a pattern that dates back more than a decade.

For years, FEMA was a backwater agency -- until 1992, when complaints about its response to Hurricane Andrew led to sweeping reforms. FEMA was upgraded to a Cabinet-level agency and soon became a model for anticipating and responding to disasters, experts said. Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

The administration’s approach to Gulf Coast infrastructure projects has also caused friction. The White House objected to congressional authorization of $1 billion in the recently passed energy bill to rebuild coastlines, which act as natural hurricane and flood buffers. The money was earmarked for six energy producing states, including Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Repeated shortfalls in the Army Corps of Engineers’ budgets over the last five years meant that the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, which covers the Jefferson, St. Tammany and Orleans parishes, left the project deeply underfunded.

Although the problem existed under the Clinton administration, critics say it got worse under Bush.

In 2005, for instance, the Army Corps of Engineers requested $78 million for the flood project. The president cut the request to $30 million and in the end, Congress approved $36.5 million.

“Of course as a delegation, we’ve voiced our concerns with the level of funding from the administration,” said Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.). “This year we were $50 million short of what we thought we needed for hurricane protection.”