Hurricane Katrina, and the subsequent flooding that devastated New Orleans in August 2005, has posed the greatest challenge and evoked some of the harshest criticism the agency has ever faced.
Created by President Carter in 1979, elevated to Cabinet level in 1993, and incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, FEMA is charged with guiding the federal response to the nation’s disasters — both natural and man-made.
The agency manages the National Flood Insurance Program and the U.S. Fire Administration as well as helps prepare state and local emergency managers by providing first responder and emergency preparedness training. The Department of Homeland Security channels funding to federal operations and provides grants to state and local agencies.
FEMA defers to state and local emergency teams to handle disasters at their level. If a city cannot respond, the county or the state provides help. If the state lacks the resources, the federal government responds, but only at the request of the governor and on the recommendation of the region’s FEMA director.
In order to tap into FEMA resources, the state’s governor must submit a letter to the president requesting to formally invoke the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. In the letter, the governor estimates what resources would be necessary to assist state and local crews responding to the situation.
The governor’s request doesn’t go directly to the president; instead, the regional FEMA director makes recommendations to the undersecretary of emergency preparedness and response, also known as the director of FEMA. The undersecretary then makes recommendations to the head of the Department of Homeland Security, who then briefs the president on the situation.
“It’s always the state’s call. The state tells what kind of help they need. We don’t come in and take over,” said Philip Clark, spokesman for FEMA’s Region III which includes Washington, D.C., Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. “The Congress assumes responsibility begins at the local level and moves up. Congress didn’t mean for FEMA to come in to every disaster.”
If the president approves a federal response, he has the power to provide the resources requested from the state but the federal government is not meant to completely take over the situation. The president can, however, authorize executive orders that allow the federal government to assume control of transportation, communication, food resources, and all airports and aircraft.
In the case of a catastrophic disaster, FEMA coordinates emergency food and water, medical supplies and services, search and rescue operations and transportation assistance with the help of 28 federal partners, the Red Cross and local emergency management crews.
“Our role is more of coordination, not dictation,” said Clark. “We put together the people that have help to offer with those who need it.”
FEMA employs around 2,600 people as part of its permanent staff and has reservists who can be deployed in case of emergency. First responders at the local level, including fireman, policemen and emergency managers, are not employed directly by FEMA but do conduct ongoing exercises with regional FEMA offices.
President Carter created FEMA in 1979 by merging different disaster-related agencies. FEMA’s importance grew as it coordinated response to major natural disasters like the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989 and Hurricane Andrew in 1992. By 1993, the agency had become such an important one that President Clinton elevated the organization to Cabinet-level status when he appointed James Lee Witt as the FEMA director. Witt, who had managed emergency response in President Clinton’s home state of Arkansas, focused the agency on natural disaster preparedness and mitigation.
The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks prompted President Bush to form the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, and in March 2003, FEMA became part of DHS within the Emergency Planning and Response Directorate.
Merging with DHS relegated FEMA from an independent agency to part of the much larger DHS but gave access to a wider range of resources. Under Homeland Security, FEMA would continue to “lead the effort to prepare the nation for all hazards and effectively manage federal response and recovery efforts following any national incident,” according to its Web site.
FEMA is also part of the National Response Plan created in December 2004 by DHS. The plan established a framework for coordination among agencies that respond to domestic incidents, such as major terrorist attacks and natural events.
The delayed federal response to Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast has led many officials, including President Bush, who called the initial response “not acceptable,” to question FEMA’s preparedness for a natural disaster.
“The obvious fact is that Hurricane Katrina was an enormously powerful and destructive act of nature. It certainly wasn’t caused by any government,” said Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. “But government failures preparing for and responding to Hurricane Katrina allowed much more human suffering and property destruction to occur than should have. That is the sad and stunning fact.”
As Katrina threatened the Gulf Coast, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco issued a state of emergency on Aug. 26 and on Aug. 28 sent a letter to President Bush requesting a disaster declaration for the state in order to release federal assistance.
“I have determined that this incident will be of such severity and magnitude that effective response will be beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments and that supplementary federal assistance will be necessary,” Blanco wrote in her letter.
The letter had to travel through points in FEMA before the federal government could respond. FEMA deployed regional responders before Katrina made landfall, but a major federal response wasn’t evident until days later. The hurricane crippled many state and local emergency agencies in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama leaving them unable to respond without federal help.
“What happened was that essentially, the demolishment of that state and local infrastructure, and I think that really caused the cascading series of breakdown,” said DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff in a New York Times interview.
From the local level, officials complained of communication breakdowns and the lack of leadership from the federal government, particularly from FEMA Director Michael Brown. Reports of FEMA turning down personnel and supplies offered by police forces and emergency crews further drew fire from Congress and others who said the agency failed to respond adequately.
On Sept. 9, 2005, Chertoff pulled Brown from the role of managing Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
Blanco’s office blamed bureaucracy and layers of red tape for blocking an effective emergency effort.
“We wanted helicopters, food and water. They wanted to negotiate an organizational chart,” Blanco’s press secretary Denise Bottcher told the New York Times.
The delayed federal response prompted politicians to question FEMA’s organization and leadership.
One critique was that the “all hazards” preparation focused too much on terrorism. The Government Accountability Office found in July 2005 that 31 of 39 first responder departments agreed that training was adequate for terrorist attacks but not natural disasters. The report also found that almost 75 percent of grant dollars awarded by DHS for first responders in 2005 focused predominantly on terrorism training.
Despite the criticism, Brown said no one could have prepared for the extent of the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flooding of New Orleans.
“What we cannot do, and what we did not do immediately after the storm passed and as the levees were breaking, was to be able to bring in rescue workers and urban search-and-rescue teams and the medical teams because they themselves would have then become disaster victims. So we had to come in very carefully and very methodically. And it frustrated me, too because I would rather just have charged in there and done everything we could have,” he told the NewsHour on Sept. 1, 2005.
Top congressional Democrats Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California issued statements that FEMA failed miserably and its leadership should be fired. Brown’s background is in law, finance, public service and does not have experience with emergency management, they said.
Sens. Hilary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said FEMA should be restored as an independent agency at the Cabinet level to remove one layer of bureaucracy.
Both Congress and President Bush have announced they will launch inquiries into the federal government’s response and the future of FEMA.