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The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is in the national political spotlight again, this time as a result of congressional scrutiny, public criticism, and Clinton administration reexamination. In past year, both the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) and the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) were commissioned by Congress to critically investigate FEMA in light of its poor performance before, during, and after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
NAPA's Coping with Catastrophe is a remarkably illuminating, 138 page assessment of the agency. In this reviewer's opinion, it is the best examination of FEMA and the nation's disaster management system since the Public Administration Review's 1985 special issue "Emergency Management: A Challenge for Public Administration," under William J. Petak's editorship (Petak, 1985). Coping with Catastrophe is well written and researched. The report contains extensive interviewing, uses able researchers and scholars, and was evaluated by a very prestigious panel of Washington insiders, making it a quality product.
The General Accounting Office studies reflect extensive fieldwork and are strong on diagnosing management and policy implementation problems. Both the Disaster Management report and U.S. Comptroller General Charles A. Bowsher's statement synthesize a series of reports and hearings testimony on the subject.(1) Their analyses and recommendations are less bold and rigorous than NAPA's. Yet, they, too, offer insight and useful information.
The NAPA and GAO reports, plus a pool of related publications,(2) all take up these questions: (1) Should FEMA be dismantled? (2) What is the role of the military in disaster? (3) What of FEMA and civil defense against nuclear attack? (4) How can federal emergency management functions be improved? (5) What needs to be done to build better FEMA relationships with state and local emergency management agencies? (6) How can FEMA improve its links to the White House and to Congress?
Should FEMA Be Dismantled?
President Carter formed the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1979 after a much-criticized federal response to the Three Mile Island Unit No.2 Nuclear Power Plant accident. FEMA was to provide a single point of contact for state and local governments and was to "optimize" the use of emergency preparedness and response resources at all levels of government by taking advantage of the similarities and response activities for both peacetime and attack emergencies (McLoughlin, 1985). The agency was supposed to replace a patch-work of disparate agencies, councils, laws, and executive orders with a central, consolidated, and integrated emergency management agency.
The NAPA report alleges that this consolidation has not yet been achieved. One of its subheadings calls FEMA "An Institution Not Yet Built." The study reveals problems, including vague mission statements, an unclear legislative charter, weak or nonexistent management systems, poor application of communications and information technologies, and deficient headquarters/field relationships. Another damaging claim is that many FEMA offices are compartmentalized and isolated - this in an agency which is supposed to be a model and focal point of federal administrative coordination after disasters.
The Bowsher statement reminds us that FEMA was to work in accord with the disaster priorities of the President, "drawing to the extent possible on the resources and missions of existing federal, state, and local agencies." It was to emphasize hazard mitigation and state and local preparedness, thereby minimizing the need for federal intervention. FEMA's strategy has been to, "1) enhance the capability of state and local governments to respond to disasters, 2) coordinate with 26 federal agencies assigned to provide resources to respond to disasters, 3) give federal assistance directly to citizens recovering from disasters, 4) grant financial assistance to state and local governments, and 5) provide leadership, through grants, flood plain management, and other activities for hazard mitigation" (Bowsher Statement, 3-4).
Bowsher and GAO investigators neither consider nor advocate dismantling FEMA. They do insist, however, that if FEMA is reorganized, it not be folded into the Department of Defense (DOD) (for reason, given below). The Bowsher statement, in particular, critiques the adequacy of the Federal Disaster Response Plan. That plan is found to be "inadequate for dealing with catastrophic disasters such as Hurricane Andrew in south Florida because, among other things, it lacks provisions for a comprehensive assessment of damages and the corresponding needs of disaster victims" (Bowsher statement, p. 6). All three reports instead prefer internal refashioning of FEMA and improving the Federal Disaster Response Plan. That plan specifies the duties and relationships of some 26 federal agencies and additional nongovernmental organizations, including the Red Cross. Comptroller General Bowsher's statement provides interesting findings regarding other deficiencies of both FEMA and the Response Plan in south Florida, but makes a generally favorable comment on how FEMA and the plan worked in the aftermath of Hawaii's Hurricane Iniki and Louisiana's Hurricane Andrew.
Coping with Catastrophe …