Reforming FEMA alone won’t fix the problem

There are hopes that a structural reform and management reorganization of FEMA under the Obama Administration will solve the problems that emerged in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Dolly and Ike.  There is a lot of important work to be done with reforming FEMA but even a perfect emergency management agency won’t provide the essential ingredient for an effective federal disaster response.

Don’t get me wrong.  The agency needs better management, more efficient organization and better accountability.

But restructuring alone is not enough.  The quality of Presidential leadership is the truly defining factor that makes of breaks an effective government disaster response.  Contrast the role of President Bush who left it to “Brownie” to deal with the Katrina disaster to President Johnson’s approach to the Hurricane Betsy disaster.

Immediately after Hurricane Betsy devastated New Orleans in September 1965 President Johnson flew to the city. In the flooded Ninth Ward, Johnson visited the George Washington Elementary School, on St. Claude Avenue, which was being used as a shelter. “Most of the people inside and outside of the building were Negro,” the White House diary reads.

The diary describes the shelter as a “mass of human suffering,” with people calling out for help “in terribly emotional wails from voices of all ages. . . . It was a most pitiful sight of human and material destruction.”

Johnson was deeply moved as people approached and asked him for food and water; one woman asked Johnson for a boat so that she could look for her two sons, who had been lost in the flood.

Johnson had entered the crowded shelter in near-total darkness; there were only a couple of flashlights to lead the way. ” At first, the people in the darkened shelter did not believe that it was actually the President.” Directing the flashlights pointed at him Johnson announced to the refugees, “This is your President!. I’m here to help you!”

Johnson dispatched Secret Service agents from his protective detail to bring water to the shelter, ordered the Mayor of New Orleans who was with him to mobilize local resources and picked up the phone, called the directors of two dozen federal agencies and ordered them to drop everything to bring the resources of their agencies to bear on the problem.

The appropriate role of a President in mobilizing the resources of the federal government is illustrated in a telephone recording of a conversation between LBJ and Robert Phillips, the Director of the Government Readiness Office of the Office of Emergency Planning, the predecessor of FEMA.

Click to listen to President Johnson’s telephone conversation with Robert Phillips.

[A good place to begin fixing the problems with the Hurricane Ike recovery program would be for President Obama to have a conversation like this with the federal, state and local officials working on disaster recovery].

Recovering from Betsy was hard, slow and painful.  But the recovery did take place.

The first step today is to yank FEMA out of the Homeland Security Department bureaucracy and make it and the entire disaster response program directly accountable to the President as it used to be before the so-called 9/11 government reforms.

Effective disaster response requires Presidential leadership.


  1. It will take more than getting FEMA out from under DHS to restore order to the chaos that is FEMA. FEMA’s problems are rooted deep within the core of its current FEMA leadership. FEMA continues to demonstrate an inability to employ basic Core Values and lacks accountability. FEMA knew that occupants of FEMA housing were suffering and did nothing to protect their victims from the dangers of formaldehyde. Without accountability FEMA will continue to protect its own self-interest and not the survivors that they were tasked to protect. New Leadership must be transparent, in touch with basic Core Values, enable locals and have no fear of accountability.

  2. An irrefutable statement of fact, and need, but incomplete.

    To begin with, yes there were qualitative and quantitative differences in Johnson’s and Bush’s response to Betsy and Katrina, respectively. However, there were also qualitative and quantitative differences “on the ground” in New Orleans, as well as the entire national, political, agency and historical (including local disaster history) context. Since Betsy proceeds Katrina, by four decades, and the current cluster of “climate change” driven storms were actually predicted events back in the late sixties, then where were the meaningful preventive measures just for New Orleans alone, as well as disaster/emergency response over that four decades, not to mention coherent environment/energy/population policy?

    Where was the American political will in the general population to produce action by eight President’s and 21 Congresses? Of course it will take more than just restructuring FEMA, as an arm of the Executive Branch, because capacity, structure & function of agencies, and FUNDING, depend on the Legislative Branch, aka Congress!
    Leadership is important, but where has the leadership been in Congress for the last four decades on all these related issues? We do not elect Deity to the presidency, the structural constraints on that office being unimaginable for most average Americans, and we should temper our expectations. Because of a failure of public education over the last four decades, what science there was, has failed to more meaningfully inform public policy, including disaster relief and prevention. Governments tend toward being reactive, not proactive, particularly without driving political will in the electorates.

    Take the example of disease/trauma care in mass disaster/emergency, an even more acute and long term need in many peoples calculus, though not necessarily mine. How can you develop the “surge” capacity in a medical care delivery system to deal with large disasters when the private underwriters, ie “profit care”, literally own the provider system, and everything is profoundly leveraged down to a couple of percent variation? When the entire system is “privatized”, and therefore about profits, productivity, and efficiency, why would it develop the excess unused surge capacity to deal with disaster? So, there is a problem with boundaries between the public commons/government and the private/corporate in American society, that manifests itself in a lack of political will, through Congress. The biggest mountain Obama will climb, if he keeps any of his campaign priorities, will be “health care”. Is it possible to develop disaster response in the disease care delivery system through expanded but continued private ownership of the disease care delivery system, as has been proposed?

    Of course, there are all sorts of other issues to be addressed in a FEMA redo, and disaster/emergency response, like empire, dictatorship, extra-constitutional governments, “marshal” law, privacy, security, posse com, habeas, etc that will confound the goals of housing human victims of disaster. Congress, the American people, and their political will, are at the core of those developments and leadership, not just the President! That will bring some accountability, and independence to respond, to human need for housing.

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