“AWE INSPIRING”….Obviously the full story of FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina won’t be written for months, but Peter Gosselin and Alan Miller tell at least part of the story today in the LA Times. First, there’s the organization of FEMA itself:
The agency’s core budget, which includes disaster preparedness and mitigation, has been cut each year since it was absorbed by the Homeland Security Department in 2003. Depending on what the final numbers end up being for next fiscal year, the cuts will have been between about 2% and 18%.
The agency’s staff has been reduced by 500 positions to 4,735. Among the results, FEMA has had to cut one of its three emergency management teams, which are charged with overseeing relief efforts in a disaster. Where it once had “red,” “white” and “blue” teams, it now has only red and white.
….”They’ve taken emergency management away from the emergency managers,” complained Morrie Goodman, who was FEMA’s chief spokesman during the Clinton administration. “These operations are being run by people who are amateurs at what they are doing.”
Second, there’s FEMA’s attempts to shift blame to state and local authorities:
Under the law, [Homeland Security Secretary Michael] Chertoff said, state and local officials must direct initial emergency operations. “The federal government comes in and supports those officials,” he said.
Chertoff’s remarks, which echoed earlier statements by President Bush, prompted withering rebukes both from former senior FEMA staffers and outside experts.
“They can’t do that,” former agency chief of staff Jane Bullock said of Bush administration efforts to shift responsibility away from Washington. “The moment the president declared a federal disaster, it became a federal responsibility….The federal government took ownership over the response,” she said. Bush declared a disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi when the storm hit a week ago.
“What’s awe-inspiring here is how many federal officials didn’t issue any orders,” said Paul C. Light, an authority on government operations at New York University.
I suspect that final quote might tell a big part of the story. Would FEMA have taken the same approach if New Orleans had been the target of a terrorist attack instead of a hurricane?