The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was originally created by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 and implemented by two two of his Executive Orders on April 1, 1979. It was created to bring federal assistance, materiel and coordination to emergency situations that were beyond the capability of state and local governments. Federal response would come only when local authorities declared an emergency situation and requested federal assistance. Initially, FEMA was brought in to assist in the response to toxic waste deposits at Love Canal near Buffalo, NY and to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident near Harrisburg, PA. Both instances showed the promise of the new agency, while highlighting areas in which the responses could have been better coordinated.
The agency was not prominent under either President Reagan or his successor, President George H. W. Bush. This neglect was highlighted in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, which devastated areas of southern Florida south of Miami. In fact, President Bush’s lackadaisical response to Andrew may have led to his defeat in 1992, even in the wake of his success in the first Iraq war. This lesson was not lost on his successor, Bill Clinton.
President Clinton brought in James Lee Witt, who had served as head of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. Witt revamped the agency to improve the response and mitigation process. This focus on emergency response was unprecedented in the wake of the Cold War when civil defense was geared towards man made emergencies. These efforts were not maintained by President George W. Bush, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11.
Following 9/11, FEMA, which had been a cabinet level department, was subsumed under the newly-created Department of Homeland Security. In 2003, Michael Brown, former head of the American Arabian Horse Association, was appointed to head FEMA. He protested the continued lack of funding of and and attention to the Nation’s emergency response infrastructure, although his protests went unheeded. Then, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.
The Katrina experience highlighted the problems of outsourcing America’s emergency response. This along with a distinct lack of leadership ere contributed to the lack of coordination between FEMA and state and local governments. Moreover, the initial response and relief delivery was delayed with disastrous and deadly effect. The lack of preparation and shift to privatization was highlighted further in the aftermath. Local officials, the National Guard, and the military were prepared to collect the bodies of the more than 2000 American citizens who lay dead, but the administration outsourced these efforts to a private mortuary firm. Single-source contracts brought in expensive and deficient “FEMA trailers” which would later prove carcinogenic. I personally witnessed gross waste, as private contractors provided high-priced housing for volunteers who traveled to the Gulf to help in the clean-up. Under the auspices of Homeland Security, these camps treated volunteers from around the world with an atmosphere more akin to a prison camp than volunteer housing. The Bush presidency never recovered from the mismanagement of the Katrina response.
President Obama apparently learned from his predecessor’s mistake. He elevated FEMA’s profile within his administration and brought in emergency management professional, Craig Fugate, to run the agency. The agency has functioned admirably in responses to catastrophic tornadoes in the Midwest and Deep South, as well to last year’s Hurricane Irene, which left a path of destruction from South Carolina into New England. But that is apparently not enough to prove FEMA’s worth in the eys of many in Washington.
In the past three years, Republicans in Congress have sought budgetary offsets to pay for aiding American communities in need. In addition, their budget plan calls for drastic cuts to the FEMA budget. Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee has called for FEMA’s responsibilities to be allocated to the states or to private vendors. And just today, in response to the millions displaced by Hurricane Sandy, he collected cans of soup. Questions about FEMA funding went unanswered.
Please take notice. We are talking about collective responsibility. We are talking about taking care of our own. Cities without mass transit, communities without electricity, families who have lost everything — this might be us one day. Some critics point to FEMA mismanagement in the past, but if financial malfeasance demanded killing an agency, then the Pentagon should have been closed and boarded up decades ago.
We should have learned from Katrina; however ideology seems to obscure history, science, or common sense. The people of the Gulf Coast suffered greatly from previous efforts to privatize FEMA’s responsibilities. If we have any sense of of the common good, of what it means to be part of a civilized society, we should reject such efforts at this time. The people of the Gulf Coast were left to die, they were “outsourced” to places far from home, and tens of thousands still wait for their communities to be rebuilt. They have been patient and forgiving to an extraordinary degree. I wouldn’t expect the people of New York or New Jersey to show such understanding. And, as Americans, as caring human beings, neither should we.