FEMA director has a tough act to follow

By Mark Murray

June 5, 2001

If any Administration figure achieved enduring hero status in Washington during the Clinton years, it was James Lee Witt. In his eight years as director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Witt helped transform the once-moribund agency into what most observers call a success story. And that transformation won him plenty of swooning fans: Democrats and Republicans alike adored him, while powerful committee chairman repeatedly offered him public praise.

That admiration has followed Witt out of office. At a party on May 2 celebrating the founding of Witt's emergency management consulting firm, James Lee Witt Associates, politicians from both sides of the aisle--including Sens. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.-gathered in a room at the Senate Appropriations Committee to repeat stories about Witt and recall how he and FEMA helped their states during natural disasters. "You're the best," they kept telling the former director.

Also in attendance was Joe Allbaugh, Witt's successor at FEMA. During the speeches, Allbaugh stood inconspicuously in the corner of the room--something difficult for a man standing 6 feet 4 inches and sporting a distinct flat-top haircut--and he appeared slightly uncomfortable. Before Witt began speaking about his new business, he summoned Allbaugh to join him and the other politicians at the front of the room. Allbaugh declined the invitation at first. "This is your deal," he told Witt. But then he relented and walked up to join Witt.

At the end of his speech, Witt recognized Allbaugh and told the audience, "I will be his biggest fan and supporter."

"I appreciate that," Allbaugh replied. The two men shook hands.

But Witt also said something else to the crowd: "If he messes up, I'll be his worst nightmare." Of course, Witt was only joking, but his statement revealed an understanding of a larger truth about political life in Washington: It's much easier to succeed those who are incompetent or unpopular. Allbaugh faces the opposite situation. He has the unenviable and unusual task of following one of the most popular acts in recent Washington history. As FEMA's director, Witt became the personification of federal help during natural disasters. He established a reputation as someone who worked hard to prevent disasters and who could cut through red tape to deliver relief. Allbaugh, indeed, has some very big shoes to fill.

But Allbaugh's FEMA is already showing signs that it will stake out its own new ground. During the first few months of the Bush Administration, the agency has become more Republican in its orientation: It talks tougher, it has a sharper focus on defense and domestic terrorism, and it is more inclined to reduce costs. This policy shift has also attracted criticism. Experts have questioned proposed cuts in popular FEMA programs. And perhaps most noteworthy of all, the residents of Davenport, Iowa, recently pilloried Allbaugh after he criticized this Mississippi River city for not taking steps to prevent flooding.

Still, most observers believe that Allbaugh has what it takes to maintain FEMA's reputation for success. "He does have some big shoes to fill," said Jim Greene, the administrator of disaster services in Montana and president of the National Emergency Management Association. "[But] I think you will probably see him build on the success of James Lee."

In his first three months in office, Allbaugh has been busy. He inspected earthquake damage in Washington state; surveyed the destruction caused by a tornado that ripped through Kansas; and traveled to North Dakota and Minnesota to look at the rising Red River. Yet Allbaugh received the most attention-and scorn-when floods hit Davenport.

In late April, the Mississippi reached a near record-high level, causing floods in Davenport. Allbaugh put himself in the media spotlight when he criticized the city for refusing to build a floodwall that, he said, might have prevented this disaster. (Davenport is the largest city on the upper Mississippi without a floodwall.) "How many times will the American taxpayer have to step in and take care of this flooding, which could be easily prevented by building levees and dikes?" Allbaugh asked.

Not surprisingly, Davenport's officials and citizens expressed their outrage. Its mayor called the director's statement "insensitive." According to one former FEMA staffer, Allbaugh's message wasn't particularly bad, but its timing was: "When people are under stress, then you don't have policy battles. That's for a couple of months later." Two days after his statement, Allbaugh traveled to Davenport and tried to mend fences. He gave the mayor a hug and said that the media had taken his remarks out of context. He explained that he had been talking about the entire country, not just Davenport. (The city is now considering erecting some type of floodwall, and it expects to receive federal disaster relief.)

Nevertheless, some observers saw Allbaugh's tough words as a stark departure from Witt's style. Witt always made it a point to demonstrate compassion during times of disaster and to emphasize that federal help was on the way. "James Lee was a very effective spokesman and ambassador," said Rutherford H. Platt, an emergency management expert at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). Indeed, observers note that the Clinton Administration used FEMA for political advantage by dispatching Witt and federal aid to hard-hit states.

Some critics argue that Witt's FEMA became just another barrel of Washington pork and was too quick to dole out disaster money. They note that the number of presidentially declared disasters soared during the Clinton years. In his recent testimony before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Allbaugh said he wants to establish consistent, objective criteria for federal relief and disaster declarations.

"Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level," he said in his prepared statement.

When Witt took over FEMA in 1993, he found an agency with programs still geared toward the Cold War. It devoted many of its resources to dealing with a possible nuclear attack on the United States. Witt, in response, helped redirect many of those resources to disaster relief-tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods.

But in May, the Bush administration announced it was establishing the Office of National Preparedness within FEMA to serve as the point of contact for all of the 40-odd agencies that deal with preparedness and training issues relating to terrorist attacks of mass destruction. Although this new office seems like a return to the Cold War days at FEMA, experts say that such an office is needed. "States have wanted a single point of contact," explained Greene of Montana's disaster services. "We look at this as a positive step."

Even Witt calls the preparedness office a good idea. "One area did not get finished [at FEMA] that I felt strongly about--that's in the terrorist program," Witt told National Journal. "It needs to happen." Still, some observers worry that this office might consume a large portion of FEMA's budget, possibly affecting programs that cope with natural disasters.

Another change of direction at FEMA is the Bush Administration's desire to have states and localities play a larger financial role in preventing disasters. In its fiscal 2002 budget, the administration proposed reducing the federal government's share of payments for preventative measures from 75 percent to 50 percent. Overall, the Administration wants to trim $200 million from FEMA's budget.

But Trina Hembree, the executive director of the National Emergency Management Association, argues that a smaller federal role in preventing disasters is a mistake. "It will have a very negative impact on disaster mitigation," she said. "Local communities can't afford to match federal funding." Witt echoes that sentiment, and he contends that if the Bush Administration really wants to be fiscally conservative, it should spend even more money on disaster mitigation. Every dollar spent on disaster prevention, he points out, saves two dollars that the federal government would have to shell out in disaster relief. "One way you can truly save more money is through prevention," he said.

The administration has even proposed eliminating one of Witt's pet disaster mitigation programs, Project Impact. This $25 million trial program seeks to bring together federal and local governments, individuals, nonprofits, and businesses to prevent disasters. About 250 U.S. cities participate in Project Impact. The Bush administration, in its budget blueprint, contends that the project has not proved to be effective.

But officials in Tulsa, Okla., disagree. The city has received $500,000 in Project Impact money to promote and build safe rooms-fortified closets or bathrooms that aren't attached to a house's frame-that help protect families from tornados. According to Ann Patton, director of Tulsa's Project Impact, the program has been a huge success. "This is the best program I have ever seen in many, many years," she said. "It has the sort of magic that brings out the best in people." Joshua Fowler, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Tulsa, agrees: "My advice to the folks in Washington would be to come up to where Project Impact is working."

Despite the proposed cuts in FEMA's budget, Allbaugh told the Senate Appropriations panel that he's not discarding disaster prevention. "I am here to reassure you that mitigation will not stop," he said. "Working with communities, businesses, and associations will not stop." He also suggested that Project Impact wasn't necessarily on the chopping block and said "it's time to take Project Impact to the next level." Allbaugh also questioned whether it was wise to reduce the federal government's 75 percent funding share for disaster mitigation and whether it would be fair to the states.

Some see Allbaugh's recent backtracking as a refreshing sign, even as he stakes out his own ground at the agency. "A good act is always hard to follow," said one FEMA observer. "But you need to make sure that you don't dismiss the things that made it a good act."


By Mark Murray

June 5, 2001

http://www.govexec.com/management/2001/06/fema-director-has-a-tough-act-to-follow/9260/