Abolish FEMA?

Richard A. Falkenrath
Richard A. Falkenrath Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution

April 27, 2006

Let’s talk about the idea of ditching FEMA. Can it work? Will it even happen? Is it a good idea. Joining me from Washington, our Security Analyst Richard Falkenrath.

Richard, good morning.


KAGAN: Let’s split this down. First of all, should FEMA be abolished?

FALKENRATH: Well, I don’t think it should be abolished. And as I read the report, and I just got a draft of it, it looks to me like they’re recommending more like a renaming of FEMA and a reinvigoration of the FEMA functions within the department. So I think we’re making a lot of the abolition idea here, but when you get into the report, it looks to me more like a renaming.

KAGAN: So just change the alphabet soup by which you refer to it.

FALKENRATH: And give it more resources and greater status within the department and the federal government.

KAGAN: Well, then there’s aspect of keeping it within the Department of Homeland Security. What do you think about that?

FALKENRATH: I think it really is the right idea to keep it where it is. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to have it outside, independent, to have a separate response system for natural disasters and another one for terrorist attacks. You do need to get them in there and I give the senators credit for sticking to that idea even though it is a little unpopular these days.

KAGAN: Well, we heard one of the criticisms from Michael Brown when he was testifying, a former FEMA director, saying that natural disasters in the current structure get treated like the stepchild. That they don’t get the same status as a terrorist attack.

FALKENRATH: Yes, we’ve heard that from him. We’ve heard similar things from James Lee Witt. And I really don’t think it would stand scrutiny.

The senators and their staff looked at that question very carefully. Their analysis of what went wrong in Katrina looks to me like about the best that we’ve seen. They’re very critical of Michael Brown personally.

They’re also very realistic about the different responsibilities at state and local levels. And they offer a lot of criticism at those levels as well, saying this is a national problem, not just a federal problem.

KAGAN: Richard Falkenrath, stick with us.

Let’s go ahead and listen in to the two senators. Here is Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican. And Democrat Joe Lieberman is there to talk about this report.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS, (R) MAINE: And reviewed more than 838,000 pages of documents during our eight-month investigation. Our findings are reflected in the very name of the report, “A Nation Still Unprepared.”

Why is this? There are several fundamental reasons. We found clear evidence of failures in planning, failures in decision making, a failure to create an effective, coordinated national response system and most of all, a failure of leadership at all levels of government. Throughout the course of the investigation, there were several findings that I found particularly troubling.

The first is the blatant insubordination of then FEMA Director Michael Brown. It was clear that he was disengaged from the onset of Katrina. He failed to communicate absolutely vital information about the condition of the levees in New Orleans. Most of all, he allowed his personal feelings, his distaste for being in the Department of Homeland Security, to override his clear obligation to provide effective leadership at a time when lives were at stake.

The second troubling moment for me during the hearings was hearing about the failure to evacuate the nursing homes in Louisiana. This undoubtedly led to the loss of dozens of lives and is absolutely inexcusable.

Third, the outright confusion over who was responsible for the integrity of the levees. That is astonishing given what was at stake, how absolutely vital the levees were to the protection of the city of New Orleans. We have listened to eight months of blame, yet no one has taken clear responsibility for insuring that the levees were as strong and as safe as they should have been. In fact, at our hearing, federal, state and local officials pointed to each other as the responsible party.

Fourth, an astonishing lack of situational awareness among DHS, DOD and White House officials slowed the response during a critical time. Officials in Washington failed to grasp the extent of the crisis due to inexcusably poor communications.

The 86 recommendations that Senator Lieberman and I are proposing will help to ensure that government at all levels responds more effectively. Our first and most important recommendation is to abolish FEMA. FEMA is discredited, demoralized and dysfunctional. It is beyond repair.

Just tweaking the organizational chart will not solve the problem. FEMA has become a symbol of a bumbling bureaucracy in which the American people have completely lost faith. There are many good people who work at FEMA, but they have lacked the leaders, the tools, the systems and the budget to be effective.

We propose instead the creation of a new national preparedness and response authority, which will be led by a director who will report directly to the president in times of catastrophes. We would put preparedness and response back together. There are, after all, two sides of the same coin. We would give the new authority strong, new power and responsibilities for protecting critical assets and distributing billions of dollars of grants to states and local governments to help them prepare and respond to disasters, whether natural or man-made.

The new authority would be like the Coast Guard, an independent agency within the Department of Homeland Security. This is important because this status shields the new agency from internal reorganizations that could rob the authority of its assets or powers. It would, instead, take an act of Congress to make changes to the new national preparedness and response authority. This is a protection that FEMA never had.

The second major recommendation that we propose is to create regional strike teams. I was struck during our hearings by how many FEMA and other governmental officials were deployed from region one, our region in New England, down to the Gulf region. Now, while we believe that New Englanders are superior people who can handle any crisis . . .


COLLINS: The fact is, that they had absolutely no knowledge of the geography, the culture, the officials that were involved in the Gulf region and that does not make sense. The last time that officials should be exchanging business cards is in the midst of a crisis.

We are proposing instead that we have strong, regional offices where strike teams that would have representatives of all the federal agencies that are involved in responding to disasters and they would train and prepare and plan with their state and local counterparts, with non-profit organizations and with the private sector. We think that would result in a firm, more cohesive and effective emergency response team. Katrina has taught us all the bitter lessons of the cost of failing to build and maintain a true national emergency planning and response system. The first obligation of government is to protect our people. In Katrina, we failed at all levels of government to meet that fundamental obligation. We must learn from the lessons of Katrina so that next time disaster strikes, whether it’s a storm that was imminent and predicted for a long time, or a terrorist attack that catches us by surprise, government responds far more effectively.

Senator Lieberman.

SEN JOE LIEBERMAN, (D) CONNECTICUT: Thanks very much, Senator Collins.

Madam Chairman, I’m very proud to be standing with you today to announce that we have agreed . . .

KAGAN: All right. We’re listening in to Senator Joe Lieberman, also Senator Susan Collins, the leaders of the committee in the Senate that has looked at Katrina and the disaster and what they say can be done better. Atop of the list, they want to disband FEMA. They want it to go away, start a new agency but still keep that agency within the Department of Homeland Security.

We were talking about these ideas with Richard Falkenrath, our CNN security analyst.

A couple more things we heard from Senator Collins there that I wanted to run by you, Richard. Calling FEMA a symbol of bumbling bureaucracy. You were saying this sounds more like a renaming of the agency. Branding problems it sounds like the senators are recognizing.

FALKENRATH: They are. And they’re making a pretty bold organizational proposal here. But when you think about how you’d actually implement it, I mean, what would you do. You couldn’t fire all the people and rehire them. There are several thousand people working at FEMA. You couldn’t tear down the building. It would be the same building, the same people at least for quite a long transitional period before it becomes something new and bigger as they propose.

So I think it is sort of symbolic when they say abolish FEMA. They want to eliminate the acronym and replace it with another acronym and invigorate it within the department.

KAGAN: What about these ideas of a regional strike teams? She was pointing out that so many of the — so much of the help came from New England, but if you already had people planted and stationed in different areas of the country, along with representatives of the different agencies that should respond to a natural disaster, that people would be more ready to go and more familiar with how the local customs and things work in that area.

FALKENRATH: Well, they’re absolutely right. Those are needed. Everyone recognized that after FEMA. It was in the White House report as well. So I think the senators are essentially confirming a recommendation the administration has already adopted.

KAGAN: And what about Michael Brown? He’s out there as a consultant now, but not exactly getting a ringing endorsement from this commit.

FALKENRATH: Well, he has a right to earn a living, but clearly his performance in office during Katrina has been criticized and I think rightly so. Susan Collins had some very strong words for him and his insubordination, which I think were deserved.

KAGAN: That is one of the suggestions in the report, that the leadership of whatever this agency would be called should be skilled in crisis management. This is another thing that Katrina exposed, that a lot of these people were political appointees and didn’t have the skills to lead such a situation.

FALKENRATH: Well, I think they’re exactly right. These should be professionals in these top jobs. But they also have to be people appointed by the president. So he’s going tend to appoint people who he knows and have been supportive.

This is a real problem, though, to figure out who is actually going to take these jobs given all the public attention on FEMA. You know, they had a real hard time finding a new director for FEMA.


FALKENRATH: And, you know, I wonder if we’re not making these jobs almost too hard. So hard that no one in their right mind would want to take them.

KAGAN: And they are important, very important indeed, especially as we get closer to hurricane season.

Richard Falkenrath, thank you for your expertise this morning.

FALKENRATH: Thank you, Daryn.