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.