Assessment of FEMA – some positive and negative changes noted

An invigorated FEMA is on the comeback trail. Do the federal agency’s local partners see any progress? Governing Magazine, August 2010. Among the positive signs the author notes are:

While FEMA may or may not get more power to push federal partners to cooperate in recovery efforts, one very encouraging trend has occurred on the agency’s bureaucracy front. Under President Barack Obama, FEMA regional directors are winning back authority to make rapid, ground-level decisions — latitude that was largely stripped away during the George W. Bush era. That sort of regional-level authority is important, given that the whole emergency management response and recovery game is by its very nature complicated and messy and not given to top-down, one-size-fits-all responses. Dealing with a familiar federal official helps immensely when it comes to communication and coordination around disasters.

As the author noted, FEMA under Craig Fugate has not yet had to deal with any large-to-catastrophic disasters.  The test of fire usually is the most telling.

A more pessimistic account comes from Bill Cumming in his blog posting of August 16, titled, Erosion of FEMA’s Legal Authority. After a lengthy review of executive directives regarding FEMA, Bill notes a constant erosion of authority since the agency was located within the DHS (in 2003).  He concludes by saying:

… I would argue that both TSA and the Coast Guard and all the border security agencies have been badly compromised capability wise by DHS and probably FEMA is the biggest loser in being rolled into DHS. Perhaps this evolution and diminished capabilty is a valid management choice, but given lack of meanngful oversight of DHS by Congress [despite DHS complaints] no more could have been expected. Time will tell whether DHS management choices were correct ones.

U.S. Coast Guard – change in mission since formation of DHS

The response and recovery for the BP Oil Spill Disaster are being carried out under the National Contingency Plan, with lead roles for the USCG, EPA, and NOAA. Today the Washington Post provides an in-depth analysis of the changing roles and functions of the USCG. See Oil spill shows difficulty the Coast Guard faces as it balances traditional tasks with post-9/11 missions

The U.S. Coast Guard in recent years has fought international terrorism, defended Iraqi pipelines and patrolled for pirates in the Arabian Sea. * * * Internal and congressional studies highlighted the difficulty the agency faces in balancing its many added responsibilities. “Oil-spill issues were not at the top of the list” ….

Three Significant New Reports on Federal Recovery Systems

Three new reports out this week (April 13) address some of the fundamental problems of  the current federal recovery system:

(1) Heritage Foundation. Federalizing Disasters Weakens FEMA — and Hurts Americans Hit by Catastrophes. Report # 2398 by M. Mayer and M. DeBosier. This report discusses both response and recovery phase issues.

(2) DHS, Office of the Inspector General. Efficacy of DHS Grant Programs. Criticism of the existing grant programs, attributing some blame to the enabling legislation.

(3) GAO. Disaster Recovery; FEMA’s Long -term Assistance Was Helpful to State and Local Governments but Had Some Limitations. GAO-10-404. March 2010. The full report is 43 pages long. Click here for the one-page summary.

Currently, there is no comprehensive operational coordinating structure to guide the many federal, state, and local entities involved in disaster recovery.”

On a related note, on March 9, 2010 the Congressional Research Service issued a report: FEMA Disaster Cost-Shares: Evolution and Analysis, which discusses the match that state and local governments have to provide when they get a Presidential Disaster Declaration. It covers the history and the reasons for the requirement of matching funds.

The language of the Stafford Act defining cost-shares for the repair, restoration,and replacement of damaged facilities provides that the federal share “shall be not less than 75 percent.”  These provisions have been in effect for over 20 years. While the authority to adjust the cost-share is long standing, the history of FEMA’s administrative adjustments and Congress’legislative actions in this area, are of a more recent vintage.