FEMA’s decline: an agency's slow slide from grace

Once the poster child for transformation and efficiency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s gradual deterioration left it weak and ill-prepared for Katrina.

Government Executive
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency and its recently deposed director, Michael Brown, have come under heavy fire for their delayed and uncoordinated efforts to support relief operations on the Gulf Coast. But experts and former FEMA officials say the weak response should not have been so surprising.

Over the last few years, the agency has suffered painful cuts in funding and staffing, they say-some in operations directly involved in responding to a catastrophe like Katrina. Further, they charge, seasoned leaders were being replaced by political hacks with no disaster management experience.

In recent years, warnings were prevalent that FEMA was no longer a model agency. Some came from the experts themselves.

"I'm extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded," former FEMA director James Lee Witt told Congress in March 2004. Witt, who led FEMA through the 1990s, is widely credited with turning around the agency, which previously had enjoyed a reputation as a haven for White House cronies and incompetents. "One state emergency manager told me, 'It's like a stake has been driven in the heart of the emergency management of this nation,' " Witt told the congressional panel.

Hints and Allegations

A flip through a stack of investigations and audits of FEMA during the past few years confirms that the agency has struggled. Since 2001, independent auditors have faulted its lax financial controls. Fraud and waste likely permeate FEMA's financial assistance programs, according to the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department, FEMA's parent agency. Agency officials have jeopardized their massive flood-mapping effort by misleading appropriators in Congress on their progress, according to an Aug. 5 article in CongressDaily. There has been continuing concern that FEMA's flood insurance program does not have the money to cover the long-term risk of damage claims. Claims from Katrina are expected to overwhelm the program's $2 billion reserves.

FEMA did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Even FEMA's celebrated successes, such as its response to the Florida hurricanes last year, have come under scrutiny.

For starters, the agency distributed $30 million to residents of Miami-Dade County despite the fact that it was not part of the disaster area. Noting that the county was a pivotal region for the 2004 presidential election, critics were quick to label the disbursement political patronage. DHS' inspector general, Richard Skinner, still is investigating the charge, and critics are calling for a broader probe. In an earlier review, Skinner found FEMA paid for funerals for deaths that were not attributable to the hurricanes. Florida inspectors had a 37 percent error rate in their damage assessments, according Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. And an investigation this April by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper found FEMA hired criminals to perform home damage inspections.

All this provided ammunition for lawmakers eager to snipe at then-FEMA Director Michael Brown in public and behind closed doors. The Florida delegation had Brown appear before them after the disasters, says a Republican staffer. "These were the most heated exchanges I'd ever seen. It was an extremely bipartisan effort," says the aide, who would not be named discussing private congressional matters. "It was amazing to watch. There's not a lot of love [for Brown] from Florida members."

Brown, whose calamitous performance during the early days of the Gulf Coast catastrophe focused white-hot criticism on the Bush administration and led to his ouster, is a White House loyalist who took the helm at FEMA in 2003. In the eyes of the Bush administration and legislators, Brown's little more than a year as the agency's general counsel and then his stint as deputy director qualified him to lead the nation's response to disasters, even though he had no previous emergency management experience.

Like Brown's predecessor and college friend, Joe Allbaugh, a former Bush campaign manager, Brown was either unwilling or unable to use his administration ties to protect FEMA's operations against raiding parties dispatched by the White House and the Homeland Security Department. As a result, FEMA has suffered repeated budget and staffing cuts, including some in vital response operations.

Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and senior Democratic appropriator Martin Olav Sabo from Minnesota, along with FEMA employees, are concerned that DHS skims from the funding that legislators provide for FEMA. When Homeland Security was created, it took $80 million from FEMA-about one-seventh of the agency's operating budget, according to Brown-to cover departmental overhead costs.

Lost Muscle

"[Managers] euphemistically called it 'taxes,' " says Pleasant Mann, a 17-year FEMA emergency management specialist and former chief of the American Federation of Government Employees local that represents FEMA employees. "Congress would appropriate certain amounts for FEMA programs, and then DHS hierarchy would take chunks out of it." Much of it, says Mann, came from response planning and operations. This has been happening every year since FEMA joined the department, he believes.

The agency transferred $169 million to DHS in 2003 and 2004, and expects to lose at least $11 million to its parent in 2005, according to March 2004 FEMA responses to inquiries from the House Appropriations Committee. While some of that is due to the transfer of programs out of FEMA to other offices in DHS, the rest is attributed to vague causes such as "management cost savings realized from efficiencies attributable to the creation of DHS."

Staffing levels have been similarly reduced, former officials say. "People at DHS viewed FEMA as an organ donor," complained one former senior FEMA official, who insisted on anonymity. When DHS was created, only a few positions were allocated to staff its central offices, he said. "So [DHS officials] were literally taking whatever they could from the agencies that came into DHS to build their [own] infrastructure."

The Homeland Security Department did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

FEMA's core budget has been cut every year since it joined DHS, according to figures cited in the Los Angeles Times in September. In congressional testimony this March, Brown appeared to confirm that his agency lost 500 positions during that period. He said he was trying to get 190 positions reinstated. Some of the lost positions were connected to grant programs and offices transferred out of FEMA to other agencies within DHS. FEMA's 200-member IG office was moved in its entirety to Homeland Security, for example. When the fire grant program, which distributes more than $700 million, left FEMA, 40 employees went with it. But that was not always the case. "There were a number of times I was aware of that DHS went around and scooped up unobligated funds," recalls a former House Democratic staffer familiar with the agency. "Personnel were pulled out of FEMA and put into DHS."

As a result of hemorrhaging people and funding, FEMA appears to have lost muscle that could have been important in responding to Katrina. One former official frets that as much as a third of the staff has been cut from FEMA's five Mobile Emergency Response Support detachments, for instance. Those teams, each made up of several dozen trained experts and heavy vehicles, deploy instantly to set up communications gear, power generators and life-support equipment to help federal, state and local officials coordinate response to a disaster.

At one time, each team had nearly 60 members to work alternating 12-hour shifts during emergencies, according to the former MERS official. Today, teams average 42 members, according to the FEMA Web site.

The office responsible for deploying 9,000 doctors, nurses, pharmacists, medical examiners, pathologists, veterinarians and others, as well as several thousand disaster response experts, was cut nearly in half, from 18 full-time staffers to 10, according to another former FEMA official. The extra work is now said to be assigned to a contractor. "I'm sure Mike Brown was frustrated," says the official. "He watched a lot of things get dismantled, and no one paid attention."

The agency also cut one of its three Washington-based emergency management teams, according to the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 5. And last year, FEMA postponed workshops to prepare for a hurricane and flooding in New Orleans because of an unexpected budget shortfall, according to a Sept. 19 Wall Street Journal article.

"I think the FEMA budget should be dramatically increased," says Clark Kent Ervin, former Homeland Security inspector general. "And I say that as a conservative who's not reflexively for more government spending. The department has always tried to do homeland security on the cheap."

FEMA's staffing problems rise to the top of the organization. The agency's senior ranks, thick with nonpolitical career experts under Witt in the 1990s, now are rife with political appointees, temporary "acting" officials and vacancies, observers say. A Sept. 9 article in The Washington Post concluded that five of the agency's eight top officials had virtually no experience in handling disasters. Several seats are empty. A review of the most recent list of political appointee positions, published last November by the Office of Personnel Management, shows that 17 of FEMA's 46 "plum" jobs, all senior executive spots, were vacant.

Without capable leaders, it's hard to be a lead agency-a lesson Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff drove home when he yanked Brown from managing the response to Katrina, then reached past all of FEMA's top posts to tap the Coast Guard's chief of staff, Vice Adm. Thad Allen, to run the effort. A further lesson came in Brown's resignation and the naming of R. David Paulison to take his place at FEMA. A seasoned crisis manager, Paulison was administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration.

As FEMA's leadership, stature and competency eroded, morale collapsed among its employees, according to former FEMA officials. "There was a drain of experienced folks, who had been through the disasters of the 1990s," says a House staffer, a sentiment that has been repeated in the chorus of media reports about the agency since Katrina hit.

In 2003, half of all FEMA employees qualified for retirement. Many seasoned employees took advantage of that status. Others simply quit, or moved to other agencies. Still others were "pushed aside," according to Mann. "FEMA has gone from being a model agency to being one where funds are being misspent, employee morale has fallen and our nation's emergency management capability is being eroded," Mann wrote in a June 2004 letter to 20 members of Congress. "Since 2000, professional emergency managers . . . have been supplanted on the job [by] contractors and . . . novice employees."

Missed Signals

If there were so many signs and so many warnings that FEMA was not the agency it once was, then how did it keep its reputation? Mainly, it appears, because few outside the emergency response community were paying any attention.

Mann's letter to Congress, which the union released to the media, received little coverage. Witt's March 2004 comments expressing his concern that FEMA's abilities were crumbling were covered only by National Journal's Technology Daily and The Palm Beach Post newspaper in Florida.

The public and at least one independent inquiry likely will be asking hard questions about FEMA's blunders. Capitol Hill telephones are already ringing with calls to alter the agency. Some want to block Chertoff's plan to separate FEMA's response and recovery divisions, while others propose separating FEMA from DHS. More proposals are sure to surface.

The real question is what the Bush administration and Congress will do when the inquiries end. The 2004 Intelligence Reform Act, forced through in the wake of the 9/11 commission's report, has received decidedly mixed reviews. A hasty, public relations-driven reform following the Katrina investigations could bode ill for disaster response.