Analysis: After the Oklahoma Tornado, Obama Needs to Make FEMA Work

A flag blows in rubble in Oklahoma Tuesday. A flag blows in rubble in Oklahoma Tuesday. Brennan Linsley/AP

In the wake of the tornado which cut through Moore, Okla., on Monday, it's worth remembering, for a moment, how wrong things went after Hurricane Andrew. Over 20 years ago, the Category 5 hurricane struck Florida. It was then the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, and the federal government's botched response earned scorn for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, charged with coordinating disaster relief. Victims stood in endless lines at relief centers. Supplies that could have been ready were not. Then-Sen. Fritz Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, once called FEMA "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever known," and that week in Florida, it was hard to find many who would disagree.

After the Moore tornado, we're reminded that FEMA's work is vital and its politics treacherous.

Americans have come to see the federal government as essential to disaster relief, and those such as Rep. Ron Paul who have suggested ending that role, albeit some time ago, are outliers even for Republicans. After all, it was Herbert Hoover who got the federal government into the disaster-relief business. The 1927 Mississippi River flood was a national calamity, and state governors called on Hoover, then Commerce secretary, to coordinate relief. He touted his efforts during his GOP presidential campaign the following year.

But disaster relief has been a difficult selling point since Michael Brown, the agency's head during Hurricane Katrina, became synonymous with failure. There were plenty of others to share the blame with Brown and George W. Bush, including two Democratic officials at the time, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. But the criticism of FEMA, including from a bipartisan committee from the then-GOP controlled House of Representatives, skewered the agency. 

Every presidency, Democratic and Republican, needs to get FEMA right. For this, Obama could take a lesson from the Clinton administration. 

Although FEMA had been primarily a reactive agency—waiting for requests to come in from disaster-stricken areas and then slowly responding—Clinton's director, James Lee Witt, used the agency's dormant powers to mobilize even if states or local jurisdictions didn't seek aid.

Back in 1992, after Andrew hit, Transportation Secretary Andrew Card, appointed by President Bush to head an impromptu hurricane task force, persuaded Florida's Democratic governor, the late Lawton Chiles, to accept federal relief after he initially declined. As Daniel Franklin notes in a history of the incident, FEMA could have made the same determination Card did, had it bothered to.

Witt made FEMA proactive, and he also downgraded the agency's remote if not implausible charge of helping Americans survive a nuclear war.

The challenge for Obama in the coming days is not only to resume his tragically frequent and grim duty to preside at memorial services but also to be like Witt and manage the federal response to the crisis. So far, so good in the first hours. And thus far more attention has been placed on congressional offsets than executive branch actions. But the spotlight will be on Obama and it's a chance for the president to show he can make government work. 

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