FEMA- Turkey Farm Redux?

FEMA Under the Bushes

Senator Ernst F. Hollings (D-S.C.) once described FEMA's staff as "as sorry a bunch of bureaucratic jackasses as I've worked with in my life". It was September 1989, in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo. Hugo struck the Carolinas during the George HW Bush administration and it took FEMA ten days to respond. Three years later, Hugo survivors had a sense of deja-vu as they watched FEMA's response to Hurricane Andrew, which struck Miami-Dade county the morning of August 24, 1992.

FEMA is now the butt of criticism again in the wake of Katrina, and despite the differences in the scopes of the disasters, the Federal response to Hurricane Katrina by the younger George Bush 13 years later is much like FEMA's response to Hurricane Andrew, which his father George HW. Bush (Sr). presided over. But it you look back in history, there were times when FEMA actually excelled.

It wasn't in 1992, when mere hours before Andrew hit, Michele Baker, Miami-Dade's chief hurricane coordinator at the time, "took panicked calls from elderly residents", who weren't physically capable of evacuating. Baker had to inform them that no one could help them. (The Seattle-Times, May 28, 2000) Thousands of people were stranded without food or water and finally, following three long days with still no federal response, Dade county emergency management director Kate Hale lost her patience in a nationally televised news conference: "Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one...They keep saying we're going to get supplies. For God's sake, where are they?" (St. Petersburg Times, August 28, 1992)

"WE NEED HELP," a front-page Miami Herald headline implored August 28th. Stranded homeless survivors scrawled signs begging the president to do something and some took up arms to protect themselves. The Washington Post reported that food and water delivery was stalled:

"Roadblocks set up to stop looters continued to hamper delivery of emergency food supplies. Truckers with emergency food aid were forced to wait for police escorts after reports that some drivers had been shot and beaten by thugs. State troopers...began stopping all trucks entering the state, demanding that the drivers show that they and their cargo had been officially requested" (August 28, 1992)

FEMA didn't get supplies to Florida ahead of time because no official disaster had been declared, wrote the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "While thousands of southern Floridians remained without adequate food or shelter, state and federal officials bickered...people waited in line: for food stamps, for mail, for Red Cross vouchers...[for] the Federal Emergency Management Agency." (September 1, 1992)

Pressured in a re-election year, Bush Sr. postponed his Kennebunkport vacation and repeatedly toured the area, offering sympathy to the citizens and TV cameras. He insisted angrily that his concern was not politically motivated and that it was no time for "finger pointing" and assigning blame.

FEMA, a "Turkey Farm" for presidents' friends

After Hurricane Andrew, Congress was vitriolic in its criticism of FEMA's hurricane response, roundly criticizing FEMA leader Wallace E. Stickney, a protege of former White House chief of staff John H. Sununu. Back then, chauffeured cars and long lunches were routine for FEMA employees, and an audit showed that a majority of FEMA's budget was still dedicated to preparing for nuclear war response. Some peope lobbied to have the agency disbanded altogether. Some thought that the military was the only agency that was capable of taking over disaster response. A House Appropriations Committee issued a report in 1992 that apparently said about FEMA:

"is widely viewed as a political dumping ground, 'a turkey farm'...where large numbers of positions exist that can be conveniently and quietly filled by political appointment." (Washington Post)

Similarly, current FEMA director Michael Brown -- "Brownie" to his pals, has the been the recipient of sharp criticism for his lack of diplomacy skills and his ignorance of the facts of the ground. The media, politicians, and citizens alike sense ineptitude and seem to revel in verbally flogging him, as FEMA slowly and haltingly responds to the Katrina disaster. No self respecting journalist has failed to hammer home the fact that Brown's previous post was with an Arabian hors equine association - IAHA. Even that position proved challenging apparently, because as one person put it: "he was not a horse guy").

This FEMA seems the same, but has actually changed since George HW Bush's day. When Bush Sr. lost the election and Clinton was elected, polls showed that vast numbers of FEMA employees wanted to leave- four-fifths of the employees polled thought FEMA was badly managed. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said: "I feel sorry for whomever heads this agency. The way it is structured, FEMA's role is to fail...I don't think FEMA can be a paper-pushing agency and a rapid response force at the same time." (Washington Post, January 28, 1993).

The James Witt Turnaround Under Clinton

However despite the qualms, the Clinton administration named James E. Witt to lead FEMA. Witt was an Arkansas native, a "country boy" with a high school diploma. Skeptics doubted his ability to lead such a large organization and questioned whether a "local official" with only four years of state-level emergency management experience and no college education could be effective. According to the Washington Post, to their qualms, Leo Bosner, FEMA union president at the time retorted: "Look at Stickney. He had tons of government experience and all kinds of college degrees, but he was a disaster." (April 1, 1993)

The old FEMA was completely revamped under Witt. Stickney was ousted but not before he held an award ceremony where he gave medals and cash awards to staff, aides, a firehouse in his hometown, and to Marilyn Quayle - because she had worked "in a dirty T-shirt and dungarees", during Hurricane Andrew (Washington Post Feb 17, 1993). Under Witt, the new agency had a place in the Cabinet and the ear of the administration.

Witt instituted "Project Impact", which led widespread initiatives from helping homeowners in earthquake-prone Pacific Northwest shore up foundations, to educating the hurricane prone regions. Disaster prevention, training, and education were as important clean-up. Clinton stressed the role of federal government in disaster recovery. There was no "drown it in the bathtub" mentality to get in the way of helping citizens prepare and recover from disaster.

Witt received kudos from Congress, from local officials and citizens alike for his leadership in the agency's turn-around. He oversaw federal relief efforts for hundreds of disasters - including the $ 5.5 billion Northridge, Calif., earthquake and the 1993 Midwest floods. A FEMA official said to the Christian Science Monitor (April 6, 1998): "After Witt, I don't think you'll see any other FEMA director come in who doesn't already have an emergency response background,". The Washington Post reported glowingly August 23, 1998 in; "It Took a County Judge to Bail Out FEMA; James Lee Witt's Arkansas Experience Reshaped Agency and Its Approach to Disaster": "Today, state officials who deal directly with the agency are virtually unanimous in their praise for the agency." Lee Helms, director of the Emergency Management Agency for Alabama, which had recently been through devastating tornadoes told the paper:

"I think there has been a total restoration of FEMA...Witt has cut out the red tape; there's much less bureaucratic nonsense and much more responsiveness to the state's needs. As we say in the South, he's got a head full of sense."

Jane Bullock, Witt's chief of staff who had worked at FEMA since 1980 when the agency was established under Carter, also praised Witt's accomplishments in the Post article. Not only were people not embarrassed to work for FEMA she said, but "we will never be the FEMA we were before".


Not so fast cowboy. In 1994, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) put forth a proposal to legislate the changes in the agency and praised Witt, but said she was worried that if Witt left:

"that response to major disasters will fall apart...We may go right back to political hacks who don't know the difference between responding to a flood versus an earthquake."

Senator Feinstein came to the defense of the organization, saying, "I really think FEMA is a new agency...it is the difference between day and night". (Washington Post).

Flash forward ten years to today. George Bush Jr. has been in office a few years, and now FEMA has been folded into DHS, subjected to multiple changes and re-sizing. Katrina is a monstrosity of a disaster, but so would be another terrorist attack or an earthquake in San Francisco or numerous other unforeseen crises. Trouble has been brewing in the agency for a while but perhaps Hurricane Katrina will have people suspecting that the old FEMA, the "turkey farm" banquished by Witt, has risen again. FEMA again needs triage.

FEMA doesn't fail because it's a government agency, it fails when a President puts at the helm another political appointee, someone with zero disaster experience, instead of someone qualified to do the job. What self-respecting president would run a business like that?

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