Friday, December 12, 2008

Is FEMA a "turkey farm"?

While I was in south Florida in 1992 working on the rescue and recovery from hurricane Andrew, I was aware of the criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, including their slow response and their difficulty in rendering aid to the victims of the hurricane. Sound familiar? Our incident management team was seriously challenged in attempting to obtain any meaningful assistance from FEMA.

Before hurricane Andrew, a report by Congress said:
"FEMA is widely viewed as a political dumping ground, a turkey farm, if you will, where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment ..."
When President Clinton came into office, the Director of FEMA was Wallace Stickney, whose previous job was a commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. In April, 1993, Clinton replaced Stickney with a person who actually had emergency management experience, James Lee Witt, who had been the head of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services where he reorganized the state's emergency management process. During his tenure, FEMA made great progress and lost much of it's reputation as an inept organization.

President George W. Bush decided to go back to the FEMA as a "political dumping ground, turkey farm" concept, first appointing Joe Allbaugh director in February, 2001. Allbaugh's main qualifications were that he had been Bush's campaign manager during Bush's campaigns for governor and president, working closely with Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, the three of them forming the "Iron Triangle". Allbaugh called the trio "the brain, the brawn and the bite", with himself as the brawn at 6 feet 4 inches and 275 pounds..

Bush stayed with this theme, in 2003 replacing Allbaugh with Michael Brown, a long-time friend of Allbaugh. Brown had no emergency management experience. His job before becoming a lawyer for, and then Director, of FEMA, was serving as the Judges and Steward Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association. He was forced to resign from the horse group after numerous lawsuits were filed about disciplinary actions. Brown was chased out of FEMA in 2005 following the hurricane Katrina debacle, in spite of being praised by Bush: "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie".

Bush redeemed himself somewhat in 2005 with the appointment of David Paulison, formerly the Fire Chief of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and head of the U.S. Fire Administration.

But where do we go from here? FEMA is being criticized today for their slow response after hurricane Ike, where a 30-mile stretch of shore in Texas remains buried in smashed homes, dead animals and splintered trees nearly three months after the storm. The governor is angry and has named a commission to oversee repair work after giving up on FEMA. He decided to pay for most of the $2 billion cleanup and send them the bill.

The governors brought up the topic with President-elect Barack Obama earlier this month. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose state is still suffering the effects of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, provided a status check. "It has gotten better, but the problem you've got with FEMA is that they're looking for reasons to say 'no,' " he told the Washington Post.
There is even talk about bringing back James Witt to be director of FEMA.
But coming next will be a fuller debate about kicking the agency up to Cabinet-level status and bringing in new leadership. A study on the idea is due next year. One candidate for the next agency leader is former head James Witt. He's credited with whipping the place into shape during his tenure.
Sounds like a very good idea, bringing back Mr. Witt, a proven entity. It takes very special skills to fix a huge, screwed up federal bureaucracy. Emergency management experience should be the number one evaluation criteria for the Director of FEMA, but turning around a broken organization should be number two.

The town of Gilchrist, Texas before and after Hurricane Ike. Image credit (top): Googlemaps.com, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, Houston-Galveston Area Council. Bottom: National Geodetic Survey.

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