Fast forward one year to the summer of 1993: Weeks of unrelenting rainfall had driven the level of the Mississippi River and its tributaries far beyond the previous records. Every county in the state of Iowa was declared a federal disaster area, as were portions of eight other states in the river basin. But this time, FEMA’s response earned nothing but praise. The agency met the needs of the flood victims quickly and with few of its trademark bureaucratic tangles. Said Congressman Norman Mineta, then chair of the committee that oversees the agency, “FEMA has delivered finally on its promise to stand with the American people when floods or hurricanes or earthquakes devastate their communities.”

How FEMA transformed itself from what many considered to be the worst federal agency (no small distinction) to among the best is the most dramatic success story of the federal government in recent years. Not only does it provide further evidence that the government can work, it offers a blueprint for what it takes: strong leadership, energetic oversight, and, most importantly, a total reevaluation of its mission.

With a budget of less than $1 billion and only 2,800 employees, the relatively small agency has an enormous and vital role. Few areas provide such a clear case for federal involvement as does disaster relief. State and local governments simply do not have the resources to cope with natural catastrophes like the flood of 1993 or Hurricane Andrew.

But after a string of natural catastrophes to which FEMA’s response was, well, catastrophic, people began to wonder whether the feds really did have a role in disaster response. When FEMA bungled its relief efforts after the 1990 Loma Prieta, California earthquake, Congressman Mineta concluded that FEMA “could screw up a two-car parade.” In the wake of Hurricane Andrew, the criticisms were even more pointed. The Wall Street Journal ran a front page article that quoted a range of disaster specialists who thought that the agency was more trouble than it was worth; it would be better, they maintained, to dissolve the agency entirely than to try to reform it.

One of the most maddening problems with FEMA, the critics said, was the constant bureaucratic delay. FEMA workers would routinely hold up vital aid requests because the proper forms were not filled out or certain signatures had not been included. “If we had asked for a certain resource this way we could have gotten it,” said Kate Hale, director of the Dade County Emergency Services of her experience after Hurricane Andrew, “but FEMA would say that we hadn’t framed the question properly…. FEMA’s employees appeared to be terrified at making a mistake, so they’d rather do nothing than make a mistake because a mistake could cost them their career.”

It was a problem that had long dogged FEMA. In 1990, as Hurricane Hugo hurtled towards Puerto Rico with winds of 120 miles per hour, Governor Rafael Hernandez-Colon sent the proper federal aid request forms to FEMA headquarters in Washington. One scrupulous bureaucrat, however, noticed that the governor had failed to check one section of the form. Dutifully, the FEMA worker sent the request back–via the U.S. mail. The returned forms did not reach the governor until after Hugo hit. As Puerto Ricans were cleaning up the mess left by their worst hurricane this century, Governor Hernandez-Colon was forced to re-file the request forms and send them, once again, through the mail. Federal aid was held up for days.

The red tape was aggravated by old-fashioned incompetence. FEMA was, in the words of former advisory board member and defense analyst Lawrence Korb, a “political dumping ground,” a backwater reserved for political contributors or friends with no experience in emergency management. President Bush, for example, appointed Wallace Stickney, head of New Hampshire’s Department of Transportation, to lead FEMA. Stickney’s only apparent qualification for the post was that he was a close friend and former next door neighbor of Bush Chief of Staff John Sununu. Throughout his time there, Stickney was nearly invisible, except for regular trips to Capitol Hill to defend the agency against its many critics.

Because FEMA had 10 times the proportion of political appointees of most other government agencies, the poorly chosen Bush appointees had a profound effect on the performance of the agency. Sam Jones, the mayor of Franklin, Louisiana, says he was shocked to find that the damage assessors sent to his town a week after Hurricane Andrew had no disaster experience whatsoever. “They were political appointees, members of county Republican parties hired on an as-needed basis…. They were terribly inexperienced.”

FEMA’s most serious problem, though, was even more basic: Its mission was misdirected. First, FEMA was still spending nearly half of its budget on the mission it had been created in 1979 to perform: to prepare for a massive nuclear attack. The more immediate mission of natural disaster response was handicapped by the drain this operation put on the agency’s resources.

But even in responding to natural disasters its mission was muddled. FEMA saw its main responsibility as distributing federal loans and grants to help rebuild an area after a disaster. It would not issue direct aid to a state–or even prepare to deliver aid–until it was given a specific request by the governor. That may seem reasonable–why give help that isn’t asked for?–but, as Hurricane Andrew made clear, this wholly reactive interpretation of the agency’s role was at the root of many of its difficulties.

In Florida, the hurricane so overwhelmed state officials that they didn’t even know what had happened, let alone what help they needed. Initially, Andrew was expected to hit Miami. But when the hurricane hit 20 miles south of the city the morning of August 24, most Floridians breathed a sigh of relief. “The storm surges were not as bad as anticipated,” said one spokesperson for Governor Lawton Chiles. One National Guard major issued this report the day after the hurricane: “Florida has not requested any support from other states or federal agencies, nor do we project a need.”

Florida was slow to realize its own dire straits because many of its emergency workers were among the storm’s victims. Half of the members of the Dade County Police and Fire Departments had lost their homes. Most of the area’s fire and police stations were destroyed. Like their fellow southern Floridians, disaster management workers were looking for food, water, shelter, and medical care. The state was unable to issue specific requests for aid because it had no one available to assess the damage.

Finally, as the full extent of the damage–and the lack of federal action–prompted heavy criticism, President Bush circumvented FEMA and formed a hurricane task force led by Secretary of Transportation Andrew Card. Card and the task force flew down to Florida to assess the damage. As the Department of Transportation airplane passed over southern Florida, the members of the task force were stunned by the extent of the damage. “This eerie silence came over the plane as we flew over mile after mile of pure devastation,” remembers Shelley Longmuir, the task force’s chief of staff. “You got the feeling that you were no longer in the United States, but in some far away, mystical place because there were none of the reference points of civilization…. It looked like Beirut.”

FEMA would have seen as much–had it bothered to look. Because of its reactive posture, it had never sent a team of damage assessors to survey the wreckage. Not until Card and the task force flew to Florida did the federal government have a true sense of the storm’s impact.

Upon landing, Card met Chiles in the Miami airport to offer federal aid. Chiles initially declined, saying that Florida could handle the emergency. It is more likely that the governor did not want to have to pay the required 10 percent of the recovery costs. Unlike the FEMA officials who took Chiles at his word, Card insisted that the damage was beyond Florida’s response capabilities, and pressed Chiles to accept massive federal aid to be delivered by a large U.S. Army presence.

After some pushing, Chiles eventually agreed. That day, Bush signed the order to send in Army troops to build shelters and provide food and medical care to the victims of the storm. The next day 3,500 troops were in southern Florida, the first of 17,000 that would eventually serve. Almost immediately, Hale says, the situation changed. “The first thing that happened was the morale improved the minute that people felt they weren’t alone, they weren’t abandoned…. You could just see people find the strength to go one more day when they were at the point of collapse.”

As life in southern Florida began its long march back to normalcy, Congress began to consider what should be done with FEMA. It was clear to many on Capitol Hill that it was time to either fix FEMA or do away with it altogether. In the fall of 1992, Senator Barbara Mikulski, then the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over FEMA’s budget, told the General Accounting Office (GAO) that it had to suggest real improvements for FEMA or else the GAO itself would see its budget slashed. Officials took the threat from Mikulski, whose subcommittee had jurisdiction over the GAO’s budget as well, very seriously. “This isn’t a member of Congress we were eager to upset,” says GAO administrator Stan Czerwinski. “She wanted this fixed and she’s a very key player in Congress for us, and we were there to help her.”

With uncommon motivation, the GAO took a tack not often found in government audits. Rather than looking at whether FEMA lived up to its own expectations, as previous studies on the agency had done, the GAO asked what the most effective and efficient role for the federal government would be in a large disaster, and how FEMA could fill that role. This common-sense shift had a profound impact. When agencies and departments pause to self-reflect, they usually ask themselves how to improve their performance in what they are already doing. Rarely do they ask, “What should we be doing in the first place?”

With this question in mind, says Jeffrey Itell, the GAO project manager who conducted the study, the answer was “a no-brainer.” FEMA’s enabling legislation, the Stafford Act, provided FEMA officials with powers that the bureaucrats didn’t exercise. “We found that without state requests, FEMA could assess the catastrophic area, assess what assistance the state needed, start mobilizing that relief, present its recommendations to the governor, and, if necessary–as Andrew Card did–get in the governor’s face to force the issue of accepting federal help. Before Hurricane Andrew, FEMA officials took almost none of these steps. Consequently, when a disaster occurred, FEMA’s relief efforts were inevitably too little, too late.”

The GAO’s final report recommended that FEMA develop a more proactive sense of its mission. The report caught a bit of luck in November 1992 with the election of Bill Clinton. The model for FEMA fit nicely with the new president’s notion of an activist federal government. To implement this change in mission, the President appointed James Lee Witt as the agency’s director. An unassuming and direct man, Witt was a former construction company owner and county judge who had worked with Clinton in Arkansas as the director of the state Office of Emergency Services. As state director, he had earned high marks for the successful management of three presidential disaster declarations, including two major floods in 1990 and 1991.

Witt’s first challenge was to assemble a staff to direct the new FEMA. Much criticism had been leveled at the high number of political appointees in the agency. More than one member of Congress, including Senator Mikulski, had called for FEMA to be reorganized along the lines of most federal agencies, to be “professionalized.” In other words, only the highest positions would be appointed by the president, while all other positions would be staffed by career civil servants. Only then, these critics suggested, could FEMA properly respond to catastrophes.

But Clinton and Witt demonstrated an understanding of the virtues of the patronage system. The high number of political appointees allowed the new administration to free itself of the incompetents and replace them with talented new people. Clinton agreed to let Witt interview all potential appointees to ensure that they were qualified for the jobs. As a result, the resumes of the team they assembled are formidable. Elaine McReynolds, head of the Federal Insurance Administration served as the insurance commissioner of Tennessee for over seven years. Richard Moore, a former state legislator from Massachusetts, was appointed to help make state and local governments better prepared for disasters. Carrye Brown, head of the Fire Administration, had worked on Capitol Hill for 18 years where she was a specialist in disaster and fire legislation.

With a new mandate and the staff to go with it, Witt conducted a top-to-bottom review of FEMA’s mission, its personnel, and its resources. The review brought swift changes. In its first two years, the agency shut down several unneeded field offices. It reduced internal regulations by 12 percent and drafted a plan to reduce them by 50 percent by the end of 1995. It strengthened programs that prepared states for natural disasters. And, so it could better inform state directors what aid was available, FEMA conducted the first comprehensive inventory in the agency’s history.

Recognizing the unlikelihood of a massive nuclear attack, Witt also moved the agency out of the nuclear war business, making available to natural disaster responses many of the resources the agency had accumulated in preparation for a Soviet attack. One hundred FEMA disaster specialists were freed up to deal with natural catastrophes.

Virtually overnight, the agency has developed a new reputation for quickness and efficiency. Gone are the bureaucratic swamps that the old FEMA had made its hallmark. It is telling that when state disaster officials talk about FEMA’s response time, they no longer speak in days or weeks, but in hours. They speak of phone calls, not of forms dropped in the mail.

Consider the Oklahoma City bombing. Tom Feuerborne, director of Oklahoma’s Civil Emergency Management Department, can cite the events of April 19, 1995 almost down to the minute. It was 9:02 a.m. when a truck bomb ripped through the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Office Building in downtown Oklahoma City. At 9:30, Feuerborne placed a phone call to FEMA’s headquarters in Washington. At 2:05, FEMA’s advance team arrived, complete with damage assessors and members of Witt’s staff. Six hours later, at 8:10 that evening, Witt himself arrived to be briefed on the situation. By 2:30 a.m. April 20, the first of FEMA’s search and rescue teams had arrived to supplement the efforts of the Oklahoma City fire department. Says Feuerborne, “My office is very happy with the quick response of FEMA.”

Ellen Gordon, administrator of Iowa’s Emergency Management Division, has a similarly uncanny memory when it comes to FEMA’s response to the Midwestern floods of 1993. Shortly after midnight on Sunday, July 11, she received a call from L.D. McMullen, the general manager of the Des Moines Water Works. Their operation was at the point of collapse, he said. The 250,000 citizens of Des Moines would soon lose all of their water.

One year earlier, Gordon would have mailed federal relief request forms to Washington, where, as Puerto Rico’s Governor Hernandez-Colon discovered, they may have received a less-than-speedy response. But all Gordon had to do was place a phone call to the FEMA disaster field office located in Davenport. Early Sunday morning, FEMA officials arrived in Des Moines, and, by 11:30 a.m., they had determined a plan of action. By that evening, 29 water distribution centers had been established. The next morning, the first of 30 self-contained water purification machines arrived. For the next two-and-a-half weeks, the Des Moines Water Works was inoperable, but the city had all the water it needed. “Nothing sticks out in our minds that we had to haggle over or justify,” says Gordon. “Whenever we asked for assistance it was there.”

It is a sentiment shared by virtually all those involved with the response to the midwestern floods. At a Congressional hearing in October 1993 to appraise FEMA’s performance, congressmen and state disaster officials who testified praised FEMA’s efforts and marveled at the turnaround Witt had engineered. Missouri State Emergency Management Director Jerry Uhlmann said that, “this flood showcased FEMA’s new commitment and successful efforts in disaster response to catastrophic events.” And, as disasters are bipartisan, the response to FEMA’s success has been as well. “I haven’t spent a lot of time complimenting the President on his appointments,” said Oklahoma Republican Daniel Inhofe, “but I sure did on this one.”

The true judge of FEMA’s success lies not in the praise of Congress, though, but in the minds of the victims of natural disasters. Last year, FEMA sent 5,000 surveys to victims to ask them about the agency’s performance. More than 80 percent of the respondents approved of the way the agency was doing its job–a percentage that would have been unthinkable in the dark days following Hurricane Andrew just one year before.

To be sure, Witt deserves ample praise, but do not miss the lesson of FEMA’s rebirth. The change he brought to FEMA is to varying degrees within the capabilities of any government agency or department with strong leadership. “It is absolutely critical that you look … at your role and mission,” he says, “and redefine that role and mission to what you feel is important for that agency to be responsible for.” In other words, you can’t expect to do a good job unless you know what job you’re trying to do.

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