Recovering FEMA

R. David Paulison is striving to retool his agency before the next catastrophe strikes.

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina swept ashore from the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 29, 2005, President Bush telephoned R. David Paulison and asked if he would immediately take over the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the previous director, Michael Brown, resigned. At that point, FEMA might have been the most reviled organization in the country, so inadequate was the government's response to the disaster. The storm and subsequent flooding in New Orleans took the lives of at least 1,330 people, injured thousands more, and drove more than 770,000 people from their homes, hundreds of thousands of which were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable. There were spectacular failures at every level of government, but for the agency whose name is synonymous with crisis response, the anger and ridicule were unprecedented. "My first thought was, 'Why would I do that?' " Paulison remembers. But he didn't say that to the president. "The truth is, I immediately said, 'Yes, I'll do it.' "

Paulison has spent more than 36 years in the trenches of disaster response, most of that time as a firefighter in Florida's Miami-Dade County. He rose to the rank of chief of the fire department and led the county's Office of Emergency Management. In hurricane-prone Florida, the position is one of enormous responsibility, and Paulison had ample opportunity to sharpen his management skills. He led Florida's response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the costliest hurricane on record in terms of destruction until Katrina struck 13 years later.

In short, Paulison was the antithesis of Brown, whose inexperience in emergency management quickly became apparent following Katrina. Paulison had come to Washington with the Bush administration in 2001 to lead the U.S. Fire Administration. When the Homeland Security Department was created in 2003, he was tapped to lead the preparedness division in the department's Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate, which also included a scaled back version of the formerly independent FEMA.

But it was Paulison's dealings with FEMA during Hurricane Andrew more than a decade earlier that shaped his views of the agency he was about to take over in the wake of Katrina. "My experience with FEMA was very poor. When I took over FEMA, I committed that [the poor response after Andrew] wasn't going to happen again on my watch," he says.

"What I saw was that the organization really needed some good, solid leadership, and I've always had the ability in the past to put a good team together," Paulison says.

Chaos and Confusion

FEMA has had a troubled history since its inception in 1979. The agency underwent a renaissance in the mid-1990s, when then-administrator James Lee Witt was widely credited with significantly improving management. But when Homeland Security was created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, FEMA was folded into the new department, whose leadership was far more focused on preventing terrorism than responding to natural disasters.

The first problem Paulison found was the lack of a unified command system for responding to Katrina. The Bush administration had published a national response plan just months earlier, but even if government officials and emergency responders throughout the Gulf had read and understood the plan-and few had-it might not have mattered. Katrina wiped out all means of electronic communications across a large swath of the Gulf Coast, so there was no shared understanding of even the most basic facts on the ground. Louisiana lawmaker Robert Barham, who was chairman of the state Senate's homeland security committee, testified later: "It got to the point that people were literally writing messages on paper, putting them in bottles and dropping them from helicopters to other people on the ground."

FEMA had pre-positioned in Mississippi and Louisiana two of its five Mobile Emergency Response Support detachments-an array of vehicles and personnel capable of providing mobile communications and logistical power generation-but they were quickly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the need. Other detachments should have been sent immediately, but "key federal officials both on the ground and back in Washington did not know that there were additional MERS available," according to the findings of the White House investigation of the federal response.

Emergency response protocol is predicated on the assumption that an incident would be handled at the lowest jurisdictional level possible-if local officials become overwhelmed, responsibility falls to the state and then, as a last resort, to the federal government. But with no common framework for response and no central command center, confusion ruled. Local, state and federal officials were left to rely on conflicting information, often inaccurate, from whatever sources they could get, often anecdotal media reports.

At the federal level, agencies operated independently because FEMA, al-though ostensibly leading the federal response, was unable to aggregate support from multiple sources-other agencies, the military, neighboring states, private sources, corporations and even foreign governments. The missed opportunities were enormous.

According to the White House investigation, the Interior Department gave FEMA a comprehensive list of assets it could contribute to the relief effort and repeatedly tried to provide hundreds of boats, dump trucks and heavy equipment, a dozen aircraft, several dozen maintenance crews and more. But FEMA didn't have a mechanism for accepting the support.

Several agencies offered thousands of housing units nationwide to shelter evacuees, but FEMA officials believed they had to negotiate certain requirements before accepting the offers, and so most were never used. Officials at the American Bus Association in Washington spent an entire day trying to find a point of contact at FEMA to coordinate bus deployment, but they never found one.

When Katrina hit, Army Col. William "Eric" Smith was director of the Defense Logistics Agency's operations center, where he was supporting military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon officials tapped him to join the relief effort at home, but his biggest problem soon became navigating the FEMA bureaucracy: "There was no single point of contact for logistics decisions. Every commodity [the military could supply] seemed to require a different signature at FEMA." It was the opposite of the military's command structure. Nancy Ward, then a senior manager in FEMA's Region 9, which covers nine Western states, including California, was detailed to the Gulf Coast to coordinate the flow of aid during Katrina's aftermath. A week after the storm hit, she issued a directive requiring headquarters officials to release rebuilding funds within three days once projects were approved by FEMA officials on the Gulf Coast. But superiors at FEMA headquarters overturned the directive in a move critics contend greatly slowed disaster assistance in the weeks and months to follow.

Such was the situation when Paulison took over the agency. He immediately began putting a command structure in place. "That was a key breakdown and it really caused problems right off the bat," he says. A critical example played out at the New Orleans Superdome, where tens of thousands of evacuees were stranded. "Somebody supposedly ordered buses to move those people out. I'm not sure where the breakdown was, but nothing happened," Paulison says. "I know FEMA's logistics system was broken, but there should have been enough of a command presence in place to be able to get stuff from somewhere. But it just didn't happen.

"If you're working out of a single unified command post and you're sharing information and you're having regular situational awareness meetings, those things fall in place," he says. "That didn't happen in Katrina."

Leaning Forward

One of Paulison's first priorities became hiring staff and streamlining procedures. When he took over in the fall of 2005, eight of the agency's 10 regional offices had no directors. Some of the posts had been vacant for years. "I started putting people in those positions-not just hiring people, but looking for people with 25 and 30 years of experience dealing with disasters. I started doing the same thing here at headquarters, putting a good, solid management team together with people who had emergency management experience," Paulison says.

Under Paulison, Ward, who had been thwarted in her efforts to expedite agency funding for rebuilding projects following Katrina, eventually was promoted to administrator of Region 9. Like others now in senior leadership positions, she has more than two decades of experience in emergency management, primarily at the California state level. When wildfires swept through California last fall, destroying more than 2,200 homes and displacing more than 300,000 people, Ward played a central role in coordinating FEMA's response with state and local officials. That response was widely, and favorably, compared to the agency's response to Katrina, although the scale of devastation wrought by the hurricane was far greater, Ward says. Nonetheless, today's FEMA is far more proactive and capable than the FEMA of three years ago, she says.

"The leadership team [in FEMA] now is the strongest I've seen in 22 years," Ward says. "That's incredibly important-to have a solid, experienced team with a forward-leaning vision."

A key member of the leadership team is Glenn Cannon, who joined FEMA 10 months after Katrina. In the late 1990s, Cannon had been the manager and chief operating officer of Allegheny County, Pa., where he oversaw nearly 8,000 employees (nearly four times the number at FEMA when Katrina struck) and managed a $1 billion operating budget. A former firefighter, Cannon previously led Pittsburgh's emergency medical services and public safety departments. "Coming from the outside, and being an attorney, I am not bound by the myths and legends of FEMA about why you can or can't do something," he says. Now the assistant administrator for disaster operations, Cannon says he often asks to see the legislation that mandated a particular function to determine whether FEMA has needlessly bound itself by bureaucracy.

"I've encouraged [the staff] to question, to push back," Cannon says. "If anything stands in the way of doing your job, then I expect you to go around it or through it. We have a slogan: 'If it helps people and it's not illegal, then do it.' " That's not to say the staff embraced the idea without reluctance.

Historically, agency officials have interpreted the Stafford Act, the law that authorizes FEMA's role in a disaster, as requiring a presidential declaration of emergency before the agency can respond.

To illustrate the dilemma, Cannon describes a situation in early 2007 when tornadoes ripped through Alabama and Georgia. A school and hospital were hit as well as many homes. Because FEMA's post-Katrina mantra is to "lean forward," the operations directorate immediately shipped supplies to the region before anyone asked for them. But when state officials requested tarps to cover damaged roofs before rain started to fall, FEMA personnel in the region said, " 'No.' Our general counsel said you can't pass this stuff out," says Cannon, not without some lingering outrage a year later.

"Think about that. In your home is probably everything of value you have in your life and we have the chance to protect that for somebody. But we're not going to give it to you because there hasn't been a disaster declared." Cannon told FEMA employees in the region to draw up a statement for state officials to sign, pledging to replace or pay for the tarps if the president didn't declare a disaster.

"Our people down there came back and said, 'Are you sure you want to do that?' It ended up I had to give a direct order to the people in Region 4 to do this," Cannon says. It was a learning experience for both Cannon and his subordinates: "Fast forward eight or nine months later: We now have a written policy, we have forms that are already drawn up that our [field personnel] can take to state officials." That way FEMA can release supplies before a disaster is formally declared without running afoul of the law.

"I can only be this bold because the administrator has said this is how we're doing business," Cannon says. "If we're going to be called to Capitol Hill to constantly explain what we do, as we have been since Katrina, I would rather be up there explaining why I did something that helped somebody rather than why I sat on my hands."

Another of Paulison's hires was Smith, the former military logistician. After retiring from the Army, he joined FEMA in April 2007 as assistant administrator for logistics management. By then, FEMA's overhaul, which included a separate directorate for logistics, was in full swing. "What Administrator Paulison told me was the agency understood that logistics is core. My job was to tell him what was needed," Smith says. "Nothing I've asked for has been turned down."

The New FEMA

President Bush signed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act in October 2006. The law significantly reorganized and bolstered FEMA's capabilities within the Homeland Security Department. Under Paulison, FEMA officials are overhauling back-office functions such as contracting and financial management, boosting the size and capability of regional offices, establishing training and professional development programs, and streamlining bureaucratic processes. By the end of 2009, FEMA's staff will have nearly doubled from its pre-Katrina size of 2,200 full-time employees.

"There's a lot of things in orbit right now," says Marko Bourne, director of policy and program analysis. "We're going through every single management directive that FEMA had, many of which date to the 1980s, and completely revamping them." To ensure reforms are not lost in the changeover to a new administration, Bourne's staff established a transition office to document agency operations at the headquarters and field levels. "They're developing concepts of operations right now, figuring out what else needs to be institutionalized and what we are going to leave as essentially the cookbook for our successors," he says.

"We are motivated," says Dave Garratt, deputy assistant administrator for disaster assistance, one of the many career executives upon whom FEMA's future will depend when a new administration comes in next year.

"Chief among all the lessons we learned was the need to be far more proactive and far more aggressive in terms of how we tackle emergent problems in the field," he says. To Paulison, the new FEMA was most evident in the agency's response in August 2007, when Category 5 Hurricane Dean was bearing down on the Texas coast. Paulison asked for, and received, a pre-landfall declaration of disaster, which gave him the budget flexibility to move massive amounts of aid to the area in advance. More than 150,000 Texans, most of them poor and living in the border communities known as colonias, were directly in the path of the storm.

"Had we not done anything, and had the storm hit where it was predicted, the number of fatalities would have made Katrina pale," Paulison says. Working with the state, which dispatched hundreds of buses and ambulances with drivers, FEMA deployed six urban search-and-rescue teams, pre-positioned supplies and communications equipment, established evacuation procedures with the military, and placed dozens of helicopters on standby. As it turned out, Dean bypassed Texas altogether, walloping Mexico instead.

"That was the first time in our history to do things like that," Paulison says.

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