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How has FEMA changed in the ten years since Hurricane Katrina?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- FEMA -- was widely blamed for a lack of preparedness and an inadequate response. FEMA was slow to deliver food and supplies and housed displaced residents in toxic trailers. Since Katrina, the agency has undergone many reforms. University of Delaware Professor Rick Sylves studies FEMA and joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss its changes during the past decade.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:

    In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, was widely blamed for a lack of preparedness and an inadequate response. FEMA was slow to deliver food and supplies and housed displaced residents in toxic trailers.

    University of Delaware Professor Rick Sylves studies FEMA and joins me now to discuss its changes during the past decade.

    So, I think the question that most people are going to wonder is, has FEMA improved? And if so, how?

  • RICK SYLVES, UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE:

    Yes, they do extremely good jobs on relatively small-scale disasters. They've done a tremendously good job in enhancing the capacity of state and local government emergency management. If anything, the field of emergency management that's growing even academically across the country owes its origins to FEMA, and we need to thank that agency for that.

    In addition, few other countries have FEMA-like emergency management organizations. Even the most developed don't come close to providing, through agencies like FEMA, the range of post-disaster assistance that this country provides.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And at the same time, this is still housed inside the Department of Homeland Security?

  • RICK SYLVES:

    Yes. I think this has been a predicament ever since that — ever since it was folded into the Department of Homeland Security in 2002.

    One of the problems is that Homeland Security's mission is to counter terrorism. And FEMA's job is to provide, really, disaster assistance and to provide for preparedness for disasters. And clearly there are terrorism duties that legitimately fall to FEMA. But, unfortunately, when they take on those duties, they also have — they take on requirements of state secrecy that make the agency much less transparent than it probably should be, particularly given its civilian responsibilities and disaster circumstances.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What about the money? Has the budget for FEMA increased or for preparedness around the country in case another Hurricane Katrina or a Superstorm Sandy happen?

  • RICK SYLVES:

    The money has increased significantly. There is a president's disaster fund that is the main receptacle for monies to be dispensed not only to FEMA but to a great many other federal agencies that are called into action during periods of disaster. But you still find that when you have a catastrophic disaster, even the generous infusion of new funds into those account isn't enough to meet the spending demands.

    I think for Katrina, $61 billion of federal money, Superstorm Sandy, $48 billion. And these numbers aren't fixed. They continue to go up over time for both of those disasters. So, when we have catastrophic disasters, there's a significant financial burden imposed on the national taxpayer and the federal government as a consequence.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Professor Rick Sylves from the University of Delaware — thanks so much for joining us.

  • RICK SYLVES:

    Thank you. I appreciate it.

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