• home
  • watch online
  • interviews
  • analysis
  • 14 days
  • discussion
THE STORM [home page]
the fema story

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has had a bumpy history almost since its inception. President Jimmy Carter created the agency in 1979 after state governors pressed for a better federal response in handling disasters. FEMA endured scandal and often became a parking lot for political appointees. In the Katrina catastrophe, critics say FEMA appeared dysfunctional and they point to several reasons, including FEMA's move into the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2003 and director Michael Brown's inexperience in disaster management.

Commenting here are: Jane Bullock, FEMA chief of staff (1993-2001); Tom Ridge, secretary, Department of Homeland Security (2002-2005); Richard Falkenrath, Homeland Security adviser (2001-2005); Michael Brown, FEMA director (2003-2005); and James Lee Witt, FEMA director (1993-2001).


FEMA chief of staff (1993-2001)

Jane Bullock

… [Prior to the Clinton administration] the career people that were there [at FEMA] were trying very hard, but the political leadership was non-existent.

[In] 1992, with the Clinton election, James Lee Witt comes in, brings with him other qualified emergency managers: the state director from Tennessee, the state emergency management director from Ohio, people who knew local government, knew insurance. He brought trained people in.

The other thing that he did was he listened to the career people who had been in that agency for a long time, and he rallied them. And there's an institutional knowledge in that agency that is very strong, because people tend never to leave. You come into that agency, you have a very vibrant mission. It's one of the few government agencies where you can actually help people. So you tend to stay.

The good political leadership like we had in the '90s rebuilt what I think was acknowledged to be the best emergency management system in the world. You know FEMA employees ranked their agency as one of the top three places to work during the '90s. …


Secretary, Department of Homeland Security (2002-2005)

Tom Ridge

Read the full interview »

… A lot of complaints today about FEMA's downgrading into a sub-Cabinet-level agency. … You don't think FEMA was hurt by the reorganization?

No, of course not. No. … The assessment of their ability isn't whether or not they have a Cabinet status, but whether or not they are given the support and funding in support of the mission through the new Department of Homeland Security, which they were.

But you said it was useful to have a Department of Homeland Security so you could actually order people around. If you were head of FEMA and then were suddenly told you were not going to have your Cabinet seat anymore, would you have been pleased?

It's not about an individual feeling good or bad about their title. …


I don't think it was in any way denigrated [by] the inclusion into the Department of Homeland Security. It is the premier response and recovery unit in the world. And if you didn't have a FEMA-type organization in Homeland Security, you'd probably want one. So why create two? Bring it in, continue to support its traditional mission. Its new mission, however, is response and recovery after a terrorist incident. …


Homeland Security adviser (2001-2005)

Richard Falkenrath

Read the full interview »

… FEMA had a tremendous opportunity when it was combined in the Department of Homeland Security to become more than it was before.

Pre-9/11, pre-Katrina, pre-DHS, it was a highly reactive, almost passive organization that basically waited for formal requests to come in from governors, sometimes mayors, for federal assistance, and it would coordinate that assistance on its own timetable. FEMA was not a response agency. It had no deployable assets on its own. It was not a highly proactive agency. It was a rather passive agency.

Post-9/11, it was pretty clear that that was inadequate for the federal government. It was our hope … that it would be the genuine response arm for the domestic security operation of the United States. … That was the idea in June of 2002, but it didn't really happen.

Why not?

The idea was never fully embraced by then-Director of FEMA Mike Brown, or even by the secretary of homeland security. They had a lot of other things to do on their plate, and Tom Ridge in particular, as I said, had one of the biggest managerial challenges that any government official has ever faced. And this issue of response and building FEMA into something more than it was and integrating it into the department was sort of a second- or third-order priority…

Was there a sense at the time that FEMA was getting overlooked?

I think there was a sense at the time. There was also a sense at the time that FEMA basically … just sort of wanted to be left alone, to stay the way they were and to pretty much be ignored until there was some sort of natural disaster or serious weather event, when they would respond as they had learned to in the '90s. And they needed to keep doing that, and they basically did that fairly effectively until Katrina.

I was always hoping that they would become something bigger and something more proactive, more forward-leaning than they were. …


FEMA director (2003-2005)

Michael Brown

Read the full interview »

… In 2004, James Lee Witt, a former director of FEMA under Clinton, goes before Congress and says he's worried that FEMA is being seriously eroded. What was your reaction?

I wasn't surprised. We went into DHS [Department of Homeland Security], and some of the increased budget money that had been given to FEMA had been used in other areas of DHS. [Editor's Note: FEMA was merged into the newly-created Department of Homeland Security in 2003.]

I had a new bureaucracy between me and the White House. I got around that bureaucracy, but nonetheless, it still did exist. …

Would you agree with Joe Allbaugh's assessment that the agency had become bloated?

In certain areas I think that FEMA had become bloated. We needed to realign some of the resources to make certain that while all of those four facets of emergency management are incredibly important -- response, recovery, mitigation and preparation -- that you need to have those balanced, too, because when the disaster hits, you have to be able to respond as quickly as possible. And we certainly learned after 9/11 that we needed to put more assets into response.

But emergency managers across the country all seem to praise James Lee Witt's tenure there [during the Clinton administration]. There's a sense that the agency was a healthy agency then. There's a sense today that it's a broken agency. Where did things change?

I think things changed when FEMA began to lose some of its status by moving into the Department of Homeland Security. FEMA began to lose its resources, because they had given us the resources, but those resources had been siphoned off to be used in other areas of the department. …

And you were essentially powerless then to counteract that mandate to take that money from you?

… I was told that this was the priority, and these were the decisions that had been made, and I needed to follow those decisions.

What was the priority?

The priority of the department itself has always been the prevention of terrorism, and I think that's an absolutely worthwhile go. But at the same time, you should not ever ignore the fact that you will continually have to respond to disasters, either terrorist incidents, natural disasters. …

… [With Katrina] it's one of these situations where the two weak links in the chain appear to be the governor's office and the FEMA director's office, that that's where things broke down in the chain. Nagin couldn't be expected to do too much; he's overwhelmed. Police department's overwhelmed. But when we get up to that level in Baton Rouge, one of you, or both, seemed to be dropping the ball. Was Michael Brown the weak link in that chain?

I don't think that I was. … I really felt sorry for Gov. Blanco. … I've traveled outside the Beltway since this has occurred, and it amazes me how people don't comprehend what this disaster was like, how broad it was, how big it was, how utterly devastating. …

And it frustrates me that I was able to make things work in Alabama and Mississippi, Florida last year, and all the other disasters that I worked. And it frustrates me that I couldn't get it to work in Louisiana. I like Gov. Blanco. … I don't know why I wasn't able to get her to stand beside me, and let's just make things happen; let's just make these things occur. You know, if the adjutant general tells you that he needs X, I can reach out, she could reach out to other governors and get whatever it is they need.

There is this thorny question of the political appointees that have come into the department in the Bush administration. You're not experienced as a disaster manager other than having had this job. Do you reject the idea that you were not an experienced --

I absolutely do, for two reasons. One, I started out my career in municipal government working on these very kinds of issues, … overseeing police and fire departments to make sure that the city manager and the council strategic plans and budgets for those police and fire departments were being fulfilled. I was negotiating union contracts -- with police and fire departments, … and then going to state government, where we dealt with municipal governments. So I've taught state and local government law and how things work. …

I came to FEMA in 2001 as general counsel, learned about the entire agency, about all the different programs; worked my way up to the deputy director; ran headquarters during Sept. 11. I did the transition to create FEMA to go into the Department of Homeland Security. And then I've overseen 164 presidentially-declared disasters successfully. I understand emergency management. I understand incident command systems. I understand unified command and how those things work. That's my background. Did I do it my entire life? No, but enough to understand it. …


FEMA director (1993-2001)

James Lee Witt

Read the full interview »

… Now, you cared enough to go before Congress after the agency was folded into the Department of Homeland Security and publicly complained about what was happening.

I testified that I was very concerned about the fact that FEMA was losing its people, losing its resources to Homeland Security. I was concerned that if it continued, if they did not put FEMA back in and be able to fulfill [its] responsibility, that we would be facing a catastrophic event one of these days and not be able to respond to it.

And what was the response that you got?

… Nothing. … I heard later from people that said, "Well, now FEMA's got even more resources because they're in the Department of Homeland Security."

Well, what about that argument?

It's not that FEMA already had those resources. FEMA had the role and responsibility to coordinate those resources, from DoD to Transportation to HHS [Health and Human Services] to each one of the Emergency Support Functions that was part of the Federal Response Fund. They already had that.

They took the heart out of FEMA, taking preparedness training and exercise out of FEMA. And if you do not plan together, train together and exercise together, you're not going to be able to respond. FEMA's role and responsibility of preparing states and local government to be able to respond to an all-hazard-type capability was minimized. …

home + introduction + watch online + interviews + analysis + 14 days
special video + discussion + teacher's guide + readings & links
producer's chat + tapes & transcript + press reaction + credits + privacy policy

posted nov. 22, 2005

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
background photo copyright ©2005 corbis
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation