FEMA- when, why and how it was created

Every week, the blog gets queries about FEMA – when is was created, why, and its functions. So I am bringing up an older posting that addresses those questions.

If you are curious about when, why, and how FEMA was created, I recommend this well-researched, and objective account of the history of emergency management in the U.S. before and since the formation of FEMA: Emergency Management; the American Experience, 1900-2010 (second edition);  2012.

Note that either a hard copy or the ebook version is available from the publisher and from Amazon.

Disclosure: the Diva is the editor of this book.

Comments on the age-old question: “Who’s in Charge in a Catastrophic Disasters”

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Who Is in Charge of What During Major Catastrophes Still Unanswered . National Defense Magazine, November 2011.

When a natural or manmade disaster strikes the United States, which federal agency is in charge of the response? The answer is all of them and none of them, former Commandant of the Coast Guard retired Adm. Thad Allen suggested recently.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive-5, released in 2003, said that the Department of Homeland Security secretary takes command of a non-defense related catastrophe. A presidential policy directive released in April this year reiterated this.

“Tell that to [Health and Human Services] in a pandemic,” Allen said at the National Defense Industrial Association homeland security conference. Since his retirement in 2010, Allen has emerged as a leading voice in the disaster response community.

Federal Funding for Disasters

Getting ready for Hurricane Irene

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This topic is damn serious, folks. Three takes on the problem:

Washington Post article titled: How will FEMA pay for Hurricane Irene?

With less than $1 billion currently available for federal disaster assistance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is temporarily suspending payments to rebuild roads, schools and other structures destroyed during spring tornadoes in Joplin, Mo. and southern states in order to pay for damage caused by Hurricane Irene.

FEMA is placing restrictions on paying for longer-term repair, rebuilding and mitigation projects from previous natural disasters in order to ensure the solvency of the federal disaster relief fund, which pays for emergency management costs and public rebuilding projects, the agency said. The decision will impact the spring tornadoes and disasters dating back several years.

The move “prioritizes the immediate, urgent needs of survivors and states when preparing for or responding to a disaster,” said FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen.

The White House is expected to declare similar disasters in other states as soon as today, further sapping money from the relief fund, which currently has about $900 million, below the $1 billion officials prefer to keep on hand.

The shortfall means the Obama administration will soon request supplemental funding from Congress, likely causing another fight over federal spending as a new “supercommittee” prepares to identify trillions of dollars in government spending cuts.
Already House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has said that any new money for FEMA will be offset by spending cuts elsewhere.

This issue is not new.  About two weeks ago I posted an article about the need to find an alternative means of funding disasters, other than via supplemental appropriations. See my posting on August 10  re the need for an alternative.  Once again that topic comes to the fore, now that Hurricane Irene is tearing up the east coast.  See this article titled Disaster Budget Becomes Political Issue, Aug. 28.

As Hurricane Irene slams into the East Coast, the federal disaster relief agency is dangerously low on cash. And politicians are already bickering about where to get new money.  It’s been a busy year for America’s disaster agency, and that may soon spell disaster for its budget.

So far in 2011, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has responded to  “major disasters” 65 times, among the highest in the agency’s history. The unprecedented demand has stretched the agency and its budget increasingly thin.  Craig Fugate, FEMA’s administrator, told White House reporters in May that the agency’s disaster relief fund was running low, then just above $1 billion. Without an infusion from Congress, he said, relief workers would only address immediate needs, like delivering food and water, instead of less immediate concerns like clearing felled trees and cleaning streets.

But just weeks before the worst of Hurricane Irene began to pelt Washington, D.C. and New York with heavy rain and wind, the agency’s disaster relief fund dropped below $1billion—to $792 million—nearly the lowest the fund has ever been only eight months into the year. As a result, FEMA officials on Saturday implemented what’s known as “immediate needs funding guidance,” which allows the agency to divert funds from long-term repair and rebuilding projects so it can focus on response and recovery efforts from the hurricane.

FEMA spokesperson … said that the agency had the funds to meet the immediate needs of disaster survivors. But, she said, “This strategy prioritizes the immediate, urgent needs of survivors and states when preparing for or responding to a disaster.”

From Forbes magazine on August 30th, this article.

Deepwater Oil Drilling Regulations – one year after the BP spill, limited progress

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It is not easy to get new federal regulations in place, even after a catastrophic event. Example one is the regulation of high-powered financial activities on Wall St. and example two is deepwater oil drilling.   Regarding the second one, both the NYTimes and the WashPost had one year retrospective articles in the past two days. Some details from the NYTimes, April 17, are as follows: Regulation of Offshore Rigs Is a Work in Progress

A year after BP’s Macondo well blew out, killing 11 men and spewing millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the much-maligned federal agency responsible for policing offshore drilling has been remade, with a tough new director, an awkward new name and a sheaf of stricter safety rules. It is also trying to put some distance between itself and the industry it regulates. But is it fixed? The simple answer is no. Even those who run the agency formerly known as the Minerals Management Service concede that it will be years before they can establish a robust regulatory regime able to minimize the risks to workers and the environment while still allowing exploration offshore.

“We are much safer today than we were a year ago,” said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who oversees the agency, “but we know we have more to do.”

Oil industry executives and their allies in Congress said that the Obama administration, in its zeal to overhaul the agency, has lost sight of what they believe the agency’s fundamental mission should be — promoting the development of the nation’s offshore oil and gas resources. Environmentalists said the agency, now known as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, has made only cosmetic changes and remains too close to the people it is supposed to regulate.

Even the officials who run it, Mr. Salazar and the new director, Michael R. Bromwich, admit that they have a long way to go before government can provide the kind of rigorous oversight demanded by the complex, highly technical and deeply risky business of drilling for oil beneath the sea.

The seven-member commission named by President Obama to investigate the BP accident looked at the regulatory failures that contributed to it, and its conclusions were blunt.

“M.M.S. became an agency systematically lacking the resources, technical training or experience in petroleum engineering that is absolutely critical to ensuring that offshore drilling is being conducted in a safe and responsible manner,” the panel said in its final report, issued in January. “For a regulatory agency to fall so short of its essential safety mission is inexcusable.”

Many of those flaws remain, according to William K. Reilly, a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator who was one of two chairmen of the commission. He said last week that Mr. Bromwich was doing a creditable job, but that the agency still lacked the technical expertise needed to oversee such a specialized industry. “They changed the name, but all the people are the same,” Mr. Reilly said. “It’s embarrassing.”

Four New Issuances of Interest this Week- update

  • Presidential Policy Directive (PPD)#8 the full text document (6 pp.)  was issued on April 8th; click here to access it. So far (April 9) the only discussion of the meaning and implications of this document is taking place on the Homeland Security Watch blog; the blog posts there are generating some interesting commentary.
  • FEMA Strategic Plan for 2011-2014 and FEMA’s Capstone Doctrine (dated Nov. 2010) are available here.

U.S. Readiness for a Catastrophic Event — not too certain

Federal Emergency Management Agency

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I listened to part of the Senate hearing yesterday, details and testimony can be found here. It was not exactly reassuring to hear the recently retired Inspector General of DHS enumerate the problems and issues known for years and complain about the slow pace of change and remediation.  More details about the hearing were provided by GovExec.com, March 18th, in their article titled: Senators question U.S. preparedness in wake of Japan’s crisis.

Members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday questioned which federal agency and individual within the federal government would take the lead in responding to a catastrophe like the one gripping Japan.

“Is it really clear who’s responsible for what if, God forbid, we had the kind of multiple catastrophes that Japan is experiencing right now?” the committee’s ranking member, Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, at a hearing.

There was no clear answer, as FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said that the response would depend on several factors, such as where the disaster occurred and whether local first responders survived. For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would lead efforts after a disaster at a nuclear-power plant, Fugate said. FEMA, on the other hand, would be responsible for coordinating evacuations around the plant.

Overall, Fugate said, FEMA has made “significant progress” in preparing to deal with a catastrophe, but “we have much work to be done.”

But FEMA does not yet have an adequate system to assess what kind of capabilities exist in states and cities across the country to handle disasters, said William Jenkins, the Government Accountability Office’s director of homeland-security and justice issues.

Fellow blogger, Phil Palin, was quite disappointed in the quality and utility of the discussion, as he noted in his posting on Homeland Security Watch yesterday. I suggest you spend 5 minutes reading Phil’s comments and skip the couple of hours it would take to watch the video clip of the hearing.

I realize only a week has gone by since the start of the disasters in Japan, but it would be nice to see some signs of concern and action from Congress and FEMA about dealing with a catastrophic disaster. Yesterday was not one.

Change of Leadership for BP Oil Spill Response/Recovery

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Allen Steps Down From Oil Spill Response, N.Y. Times, Oct. 2, 2010.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen stepped down from his position as leader of the response and clean-up of the BP oil spill on Friday as planned, transferring oversight duties to Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft, who is based in New Orleans.

Legal Conflicts re BP Oil Spill Disaster Plans and Response

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Lawmakers Question Coordination of Federal, Local Responses to Emergencies
by Rob Margetta, CQ Today, September 22, 2010 [Subscription service.]

Two of the major issues that emerged in a recent House hearing on the SP Spill are ( 1) conflicts between state and federal laws, and (2) which federal dept. should have the lead for disaster planning and response.

After hearing descriptions of a disconnect between Louisiana officials and the Coast Guard during the response to the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, members of the House Homeland Security Committee said they may have to re-examine the laws that connect the state to the federal government during emergencies. Craig Paul Taffaro Jr., president of St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana, told the committee that his state has different authorizing legislation for response efforts than other Gulf Coast states.
“Louisiana law specifically grants emergency powers to local authorities . . . during times of declared disasters,” he said. “This construct seemed to create a bureaucratic obstacle that has plagued the coordination of the response effort throughout.”

The problem, Taffaro said, is that the Clean Air Act (PL 101-549) and other federal statutes governing emergency response do not recognize or mesh well with the Louisiana system. Local authority was met with “resistance, exclusion and power struggles” after the spill, he said.

The Homeland Security Department (DHS) was expected to take a leadership role after the spill, Thompson said. “Yet, as we all now know, the department did not have a role in reviewing or assessing the plans for the response and recovery of this type of disaster,” he added. Instead, the agency in charge of regulating offshore platforms — then known as the Minerals Management Service, a bureau within the Interior Department — was responsible for the plan. Coast Guard officials testified that their agency had no role in overseeing the Deepwater Horizon emergency procedures.

With regard to which federal agency/department should have the lead role,

Sheila Jackson Lee, chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection, said DHS needs to be at the center of all response planning, adding that DHS would have been more appropriate than Interior in the case of Deepwater Horizon. “The backbone of response has to be Homeland Security,” the Texas Democrat said.

The situation reflects other regulatory issues that affect DHS, Thompson said, including the fact that the Federal Emergency Management Agency plays a role in reviewing the nuclear power plant emergency response plans required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. FEMA is unclear on whether it should be working with the NRC, plant owners or local authoritiesThe Homeland Security Department (DHS) was expected to take a leadership role after the spill, Thompson said. “Yet, as we all now know, the department did not have a role in reviewing or assessing the plans for the response and recovery of this type of disaster,” he added.

Instead, the agency in charge of regulating offshore platforms — then known as the Minerals Management Service, a bureau within the Interior Department — was responsible for the plan. Coast Guard officials testified that their agency had no role in overseeing the Deepwater Horizon emergency procedures.

Gas Pipeline Safety — another neglected hazard comes to the forefront

Another example of 20/20 hindsight. The pipeline safety issue has a lot in common with the deep sea oil drilling matter: regulations dominated by industry for their benefit.  ProPublica just published Fatal Pipeline Accident Turns Attention to Nation’s Aging Pipelines

…the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration [in the Dept. of Transportation], the federal agency that regulates 2.3 million miles of oil and natural gas pipelines, largely relies on standards written by the oil and gas industry. It has about 100 inspectors, leaving industry a great deal of latitude with inspections. (Even after the blast, state utility regulators ordered PG&E  to inspect its own network of gas pipelines.)

And according to The Washington Independent, federal regulators are required to inspect only about 7 percent [6] of the country’s natural gas pipelines. That percentage is based on how populated the surrounding area is, and not the actual conditions of the pipelines.

Apparently, the needed improvements to the regulatory system are known.