The Conflict at FEMA Between Rhetoric and Actions on Climate Change

First as tragedy, then as farce: FEMA still to adapt to climate change . Despite the agency’s attempts to account for bigger storms, its outdated rules leave communities unprepared for disaster.

An in depth look at recent disasters and the problems that FEMA has in dealing with recovery, highlighting needed changes in rules and regulations.

This article from Al Jazeera America relies on a recent report from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom based at Boston University and WGBH News that produces investigative reporting and trains the next generation of journalists. The Fund for Investigative Journalism helped fund this report.

FEMA report on 5th Commemoration of Katrina/Rita

FEMA has issued its own report, 16 pp., titled Katrina/Rita The 5th Commemoration, August 29, 2010 September 24, 2010. It is a short, bland account of the program areas — individual assistance, public assistance, hazards mitigation, environmental and historic preservation….  Too bad the agency did not make the effort to truly assess its performance and to identify the improvements needed in its recovery approach and framework.

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.

Oil Spill Disaster Recovery – June 29 – Deja Vu all over again

Since both crisis response and consequence management for the BP Oil Spill Disaster are being handled under the National Contingency Plan (NCP), rather than under the under the Stafford Act and the Presidential Disaster Declaration process, the Coast Guard, EPA, and NOAA are the lead actors.  DHS/FEMA do not have a lead role, but do have a supporting role.

Now that we are in the recovery phases, neither the NCP nor the lead agencies have any experience, nor much regulatory guidance, in how to do consequence management. As a result, they are inventing the recovery process as they go along. Some of us have been wondering why the Administration has chosen not to involve FEMA, which does in fact have experience and guidelines for dealing with affected citizens, businesses, and municipalities.

One more manifestation of the problem of inexperience is how to deal with the convergence of volunteers wanting to help.  See the article titled Extended hands left idle in gulf recovery; gung-ho but untrained, volunteers hit a wall in helping mitigation oil spill. [Wash. Post, June 29.] Once again,  experienced disaster hands know a convergence of volunteers is an expected activity in the aftermath of a disaster.  They are not easy to manage, but there are techniques and precedents for doing so. (Similarly, one can expect a convergence of media and of researchers.)

In short — why are we not using the federal response and recovery frameworks now in place for a Presidential Disaster Declaration (used for post-Katrina recovery) and instead put agencies with
no experience in charge of recovery?

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.