Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks during a FEMA briefing on Hurricane Ida in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House Campus, Saturday, August 28, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

It’s not much comfort that Hurricane Ida was no Katrina. Yes, the levees held. Yes, the death count was in the tens and not the thousands. But Ida was still a beast. We don’t know all of the property damage yet. Still, we know she left deaths, billions of dollars in damages, and millions of people without power, with rotting food and dangerous mold accumulating in the summer bayou heat. There is a swelling public health disaster in Louisiana, where hospitals are already strained by the Delta variant. Persons of color and the poor, unable to flee to safety, bear the brunt.

In New York, what were supposed to be the weakened remnants of Ida rained biblical flooding on Gotham. Hookah Raft has replaced Pizza Rat as the iconic (perhaps apocryphal) image of a city where everyone makes do, even the rodents and the relaxed. Subways flooded, looking like a dystopian version of Splash Mountain. At Yankee Stadium, the outfield was underwater. Newark airport not only closed flights, but baggage claim carousels were submerged.

The story of how FEMA responds to Hurricane Ida is still being written, but the signs, thus far, are good. Biden’s Federal Emergency Management Agency seems to be meeting its biggest test to date. Biden quickly authorized a Major Disaster Declaration to provide federal assistance to Louisiana, and FEMA has already delivered millions of meals and liters of water, as well as thousands of tarps and hundreds of generators.

When the president stepped to the microphones Thursday to announce that he’d be visiting Louisiana at the governor’s behest, he could report that FEMA had sent these critical resources to the region before the hurricane hit, and that more than 6,000 members of the National Guard have been activated in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, and other states to support search-and-rescue and recovery efforts. Biden also noted that Deanne Criswell, his FEMA administrator, was the chief federal response officer after Hurricane Sandy in 2012: “She knows what to do.”

That hasn’t always been the case. Anyone who remembers George W. Bush’s “Heckuva-job-Brownie” catastrophe following Katrina, or Donald Trump tossing paper towel rolls like they were basketballs at Puerto Ricans after Maria, can’t help but notice the difference this time. Louisiana’s governor, John Bel Edwards, is a Democrat and an endangered species in a state that Trump won by close to 20 percent. He has no reason to speak well of Biden. But Edwards had kind words for the federal response and his FEMA “partners.”

Every president has put their mark on FEMA since it was founded in 1978. For Republicans, it’s usually a black one. Under the Bushes and Trump, the agency was a man-made disaster, often unable to perform the most basic functions. Under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, it fared much better. This isn’t partisanship. It’s fact.

Screwing up disaster relief is a bigger deal than, say, a budget shortfall at the National Agricultural Library or delayed regulations at the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. When FEMA falls flat, it’s a gut punch to those who’ve already had their lives rocked by fire and floods. It has also been politically ruinous for the likes of George W. Bush, who never recovered from the gross incompetence of the Katrina response. Being good at running FEMA may not win votes, but being bad at it is a political and humanitarian disaster.

Consider Hugo. When the Category 5 hurricane approached Charleston, South Carolina, in September 1989, it was the largest storm to hit the United States in more than 20 years. Days after Hugo had torn up the Palmetto State like a Rottweiler with a rag doll, Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings stood on the Senate floor and had a few words for the slow response from FEMA, calling the agency “the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I’ve ever known.” It had taken a week after the hurricane for FEMA to set up a disaster relief office in the state. Hollings persuaded then Joint Chiefs Chair Colin Powell to deploy the Marines, but to little effect.

Just a month later, in October 1989, California was slammed by the Loma Prieta earthquake in the Bay Area. As if in a disaster film, the World Series was being played between the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants near the fault line. U.S. Representative Norman Mineta, the staid San Jose Democrat, had his own reaction to FEMA’s tardy response. The mild-mannered Democrat who would later cross party lines to become George W. Bush’s secretary of transportation said of FEMA, “They could screw up a two-car parade.” FEMA sent just one agent to handle all the claims in Oakland. In Alameda County, which includes Oakland, Don Perata, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, noted that while citizens might complain about the Internal Revenue Service, the IRS is a “Mary Poppins to FEMA’s Freddy Krueger.”

And Hugo and Lomo Pieta hit FEMA in just the first year of George H. W. Bush’s presidency.

By 1992, “41” was fighting for reelection and faced an even bigger FEMA screw-up—the sluggish response to Hurricane Andrew, which displaced Hugo as the nation’s most damaging storm, devastating the flat expanse between Miami and the Keys. Bush was left fighting to defend the once GOP-safe Sunshine State against Bill Clinton. Andrew leveled a 50-mile swath across southern Florida, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless and without power. As the Washington Monthly noted in 2005:

For the first three days, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is responsible for coordinating federal disaster relief, was nowhere to be found. And when FEMA did finally arrive, its incompetence further delayed relief efforts. Food and water distribution centers couldn’t meet the overwhelming need; lines literally stretched for miles. Mobile hospitals arrived late.

A lot of factors made FEMA so crappy under the first President Bush. First, its administrator was a former New Hampshire transportation secretary with few qualifications other than being friends with White House Chief of Staff and former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu. Second, the agency was run with infuriating passivity, seeing its job primarily to distribute aid only after a disaster had happened, and only if requests were made in triplicate. Forms had to be filled out precisely or they were returned, something the governor of Puerto Rico found out in 1989 during Hurricane Hugo. The territory hadn’t filled out its forms correctly, and FEMA sent the request back via U.S. mail; it didn’t arrive until after the hurricane had devastated the island.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the agency was heavy on political appointees, like property assessors hired on a contract basis from local Republican parties, and short on things like generators.

The agency was still primarily geared toward its Cold War roots in civil defense. Under the Reagan administration, FEMA emphasized the survive-a-nuclear-war part of its mission, but Congress saved the Gipper from himself. His budget request to pump billions into civil defense was spurned by Congress, including the GOP-controlled Senate. One Reagan Pentagon official pushing civil defense was famed for saying that “with enough shovels” and plastic tarps, millions of Americans could ride out a nuclear war with the Soviets. Reagan’s first FEMA head was a civil defense zealot, Louis O. Giuffrida, who wrote a master’s thesis about controlling a hypothetical mass insurrection of American minorities. He got pushed out after trying to have the feds build a private residence on the grounds of FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute in Maryland. Reagan’s second FEMA director, Julius Becton, a Black general who ran disaster preparedness for the Army, had a relatively smooth tenure and would, in a later career, go on to be the superintendent of the D.C. schools.

FEMA was resurrected under Bill Clinton, who understood that the agency had to focus on the kinds of natural disasters that beset real Americans and not just plan for a Mad Max post-nuclear future. No one did better at running the agency than James Lee Witt, whom Clinton tapped in 1993. Witt had a background in emergency management, unlike Joe Albaugh, George W. Bush’s friend, who had none when he was tapped to be FEMA administrator in 2001. Witt had done an excellent job in Arkansas dealing with fires and floods, something the Arkansas governor appreciated as he eyed a presidential run.

As a 34-year-old governor in his first term, Clinton had learned the hard way about the importance of getting disasters right. When Jimmy Carter transferred some 20,000 Cuban refugees to Arkansas in 1980 following the Mariel boatlift, the state was ill-prepared to take them, and rioting broke out under poor conditions at Fort Chaffee, where they were being held. Hundreds of refugees escaped. This wasn’t a FEMA problem, but it underscored in Clinton’s mind the importance of emergency management and the ways in which Washington can make things worse. Since FEMA’s portfolio does include nuclear accidents as well as hurricanes, the 1978 Three Mile Island near meltdown had sped FEMA’s creation. That same year, Clinton, who was the state attorney general and running for governor that year, had to deal with an explosion in the silo of a nuclear missile at a Strategic Air Command facility just 50 miles from Little Rock. There was no atomic detonation, but Clinton saw a sluggish federal response to a possible nuclear blast. When Clinton was thrown out of office in 1980, in no small part because of the Cuban refugee crisis, he knew the politics of disasters. Witt, who had never attended college, became the genius who turned things around for Clinton after he returned to the governor’s mansion.

At FEMA, Witt used his hiring discretion, cut the number of political cronies, and brought in seasoned management professionals. He pushed away from the Cold War civil defense legacy and focused more on disasters. Most importantly, he vigorously used the agency’s dormant authority to be proactive—moving personnel and material to a disaster site before the event occurred. The turnaround paid off quickly in cases ranging from Mississippi River flooding in Iowa to the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, where FEMA was on the scene in force within hours of the terrorist blast. “I haven’t spent a lot of time complimenting the president on his appointments,” said James Inhofe, the crotchety conservative U.S. senator from Oklahoma, referring to Witt, “but I sure did on this one.”

It’s still incredible that George W. Bush, having seen his father get hammered by one FEMA screw-up after another, and having seen Clinton do so well, still managed to set the gold standard for self-manufactured FEMA disasters. Somehow Republican presidents haven’t seemed to learn. As bad as things were for his father, George W. famously oversaw the worst FEMA response ever, Hurricane Katrina. While America watched some parts of government excel when the levees broke—Coast Guard helicopters rescuing survivors, and the National Weather Service reporting on conditions—FEMA was beset by infighting, tiffs with local politicians, and slow delivery of vital services. The response was so universally condemned that even House Republicans joined in a bipartisan report detailing how Bush had screwed up.

The way in which FEMA rotted after James Lee Witt was legendary. After Bush put Albaugh at the head of the agency, it became a dumping ground for political appointees instead of a magnet for emergency management professionals. Then, when Albaugh left, his college pal Michael “Brownie” Brown took over. Why should anyone worry that his previous job had been running the International Arabian Horse Association? Brown went back to the passive FEMA of old, refusing to do what was needed until Louisiana’s governor got back to him with the requisite requests. Even then, of course, the cavalry came late, as corpses floated and a city was submerged.

The years since Katrina have followed a familiar pattern: Democrats revived FEMA; Republicans tore it down. One of Obama’s most brilliant moves was to tap Craig Fugate, who had been Jeb Bush’s emergency management point man when he was Florida governor. This not only provided political insulation, it also brought in someone from the Sunshine State, which attracts almost as many hurricanes as retirees. Simply put, Obama was getting an expert. When Sandy hit New Jersey’s shores, FEMA performed well. Governor Chris Christie famously praised the response in the days before the 2012 election.

You know what happened next. In 2017, Donald Trump tapped what seemed to be a decent hire, the Alabama emergency management point man Brock Long, who quickly found himself under investigation for spending too much time away from the job and instead at his North Carolina home. The administration screwed up its response to Hurricane Maria—slow to obtain supplies, even slower to deliver them.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the Trump administration also gave the financial information of millions of aid applicants to a private firm that it hired to process the forms. That was just one of many privatization steps at FEMA and elsewhere that have proved to be disastrous. The victims of Maria were informed that a private contractor not only had their information but also had compromised it. Disaster begets disaster.

The good news for Joe Biden and Administrator Deanne Criswell is that they know how to get FEMA up and running again. The bad news is that they, and other Democrats, keep having to.

Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.