"If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen."
-Samuel Adams

the Misanthropic Humanist:


27 March 2009

FEMA, in or out? (moved to top)

[Original post May 27th]

A White house "White Paper" [here] came out in February of this year (2009) discussing whether FEMA should remain under DHS or be brought back under the direct supervision of the president, where it used to reside. The discussion, though predictably derogatory towards the Bush administration, actually does fairly accurately represent the pros and cons of placing the department under each authority. At first I must admit that I was shocked the Obama administration didn't make the easy and obvious power grab, until it occurred to me that they don't want to be responsible for FEMA. It is an agency that nobody will ever be happy with. Even on the rare occasions that the agency does its job well, the media will always those most hurt or least helped, and that is press that no president wants.

Part and parcel with the discussion about where FEMA belongs is its role regarding terrorist attacks or "man made" disasters versus natural disasters. A good reason for the agency to exist at all is not discussed. A friend recently suggested that all federal agencies should be made to periodically justify themselves, and that good idea applies here. As the name states, this is a Federal Emergency Response Agency. As such, its role and operation should be limited not only by the laws of our land (it may not constrain constitutional rights, as with police confiscation of firearms after Katrina), but also by the principles on which our federal government was originally founded. In spirit of this principle, FEMA should only facilitate during an emergency, not direct it. The distinction is important for many reasons, but the first and most obvious is that FEMA cannot respond quickly enough to most emergencies, and we should not expect that to change. Just like a policeman may be a phone call and 3-minute drive away when you need him in 20 seconds, so even a well-run agency will not be able to respond effectively to unpredictable disasters.

In all cases - though it is truer for some than others - disaster preparedness is best handled locally. Folks in Florida know about wind and rain, Pennsylvanians know snow, Arizonans wildfires, and Californians earthquakes, fires, riots, mudslides.. well, you get it. All plans for such disasters are best handled locally with volunteer or contracted support when necessary.

For terrorism or even - as mentioned in the paper - nuclear attacks, the local knowledge is less complete or applicable, but it is still primary. Volunteers in personal watercraft moved far more people off Manhattan Island on September 11th than FEMA could ever have dreamed of, and those volunteers largely organized themselves. How about the Hudson rescue? Did the federal government save those lives in this half natural, half man-made disaster? Not a chance. The primary responders were civilians, the secondary were local, and the federal government has added grand insight by saying the disaster was "probably" caused by birds.

So does FEMA have a role at all? What should it do in a disaster? The most effective way it could help is by doing only things that cannot be handled locally. Like the federal government itself, FEMA should only provide a structure and environment in which state and small district planning can independently flourish. Give recommendations for standardization. Provide inter-state communications links for cross-border disasters. Most importantly, facilitate rather than hamper America's huge potential for volunteerism that we demonstrate after every single major disaster. Rather than hanging red tape like tinsel from a Christmas tree, the agency should look for ways around obstacles already in place. Clear the way for the transportation of people, goods, and information.

To some degree this can include equipment and personnel that a state may not have. I have no objections to providing things like radios, helicopters, rations, or medical supplies when and where they are truly needed. I do have an issue with trailers being lived in more than 3 years after a hurricane destroyed somebody's home.

Luckily the kind of supplies that I'm talking about don't even require spending much money. Doctors, military folks, and yes even rich people with helicopters are willing to help if you will only tell them how. Private donation shipments can be collected and delivered by private volunteers through all modes of private transportation that could, in turn, be effectively coordinated by an agency with half-competent leadership. Military medical supplies have expiration dates, so increase the turn-over speed for a handy supply. There are around 1.4 million healthy, trained, smart active duty military guys (under two hundred thousand of which are in Iraq and Afghanistan) sitting around just looking for something helpful and adventurous to do. Give them 2 weeks ad-hoc leave if they use that time in a FEMA assigned volunteer role. They'd be cleaning and re-building before the disaster was even over.

The key to all these things is that they are run from the bottom up. No emergency agency will ever get food and water to the "Littletown" of 300 people cut off in a disaster affecting a much larger city. But when Littletown has a plan and sends a representative to walk 40 miles through the woods to tell the FEMA coordinator about their plight, that agent can point two of the 3,000 volunteers with chain saws and pickup-trucks packed full of donated supplies to get moving that direction.

In the end, it makes little difference whether FEMA is run by the president or the DHS, because it will be ineffective and bureaucratic either way. The changes needed are not going to happen in either location - though they would be more likely under a strong executive than under any society of self-interested directors of lobbying money. We don't have the former and we're drowning under the latter, so I'd have to say that no matter which answer is arrived upon, the correct question was never asked. "FEMA in or out?" is moot. "FEMA: to be, or not to be?" That, my friends, is the question.


  1. The scenario you described in paragraph 5 is actually quite typical of FEMA's current role. Local urban search and rescue teams and emergency response task forces DO respond to natural and man-made disasters, because they are closest and because that is the way the system is set up. The federal government does not want to be in the business of responding to and managing emergency response events. I believe the major benefit of FEMA is that in cases where a national disaster is declared, FEMA will foot the bill. For example, the costs associated with the response activities in Texas during Hurricanes Gustav and Ike were paid for by FEMA ...flooding events that occur in the Texas Hill Country generally are not.

    As with any large organization that must assemble quickly to manage a scenario that is unpredictable, there are frustrations and things that can be considered from the outside as 'mismanagement'; however, everything considered, the emergency management capacity of local response organizations relies upon the support, and funding, in many instances, of FEMA. Therefore, my recommendation would be regular review of FEMA (and ANY federal agency) to ensure they are providing the services we as a nation desire...and to weed out the fat that is intrinsic in all public sector employment.

    I think your next post should be to discuss how an oversight, audit arm, (a la Office of Inspector General?) should be designed and at what additional administrative cost (taxation) to U.S. citizens...

  2. Well, for starters, Good! I'm glad that FEMA still takes that to be it's goal. And I'm not one of the people that thinks everything FEMA does is wrong, either. The amount of equipment moved to New Orleans after Katrina, and the time that it took to get there, was more than acceptable. The problem is that while you, I, and for now the people running FEMA realize that responsibility for surviving and preventing disasters starts with US, I don't think the general public has that view anymore. I think the general attitude is that planning and preparing is no longer required, and that FEMA should just take care of everything during a disaster. It's crazy, but... it's becoming the pervasive attitude towards all of government, not just FEMA. The key really is winning the battle of ideas over what, to use your words, we as a nation desire.

    I like your idea of the oversight and audit... I'll have to do some thinking about the structure; it isn't something that I've really considered before.

    Thanks for commenting!