Lawmakers may fight for FEMA's freedom

Merging FEMA with DHS shifted the agency's energies away from its focus on natural disasters to terrorism response.

President Bush's father took the blame when the Federal Emergency Management Agency was slow to respond to Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

By 1992, when FEMA's initial response to Hurricane Andrew was perceived as bureaucratic, Bush dispatched then-Transportation Secretary Andy Card down to Florida to kick a few fannies, including the one belonging to Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles. That wasn't enough to spare Bush from bad press -- during an election year.

The lessons weren't lost on President Clinton, who elevated his FEMA director, James Lee Witt, to Cabinet-level status. And during Cabinet meetings, recalls one participant, Clinton would bluntly tell the other Cabinet officials, "Give James Lee anything he wants."

So why did Bush's son -- with Andy Card as his chief of staff -- downgrade FEMA, a decision that almost certainly hamstrung the Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts? The answer, of course, is 9/11. Inside the White House, folding FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security seemed the obvious step. But this week, the nation was confronted with the ghastly implications of that judgment.

A day after Hurricane Katrina hit, Eric Holdeman, the director of the Office of Emergency Management in King County, Wash., lamenting Katrina's damage, stressed in a Washington Post op-ed "how important it is to have a federal agency capable of dealing with natural catastrophes of this sort.... Which makes it all the more difficult to understand why, at this moment, the country's premier agency for dealing with such events -- FEMA -- is being, in effect, systematically downgraded and all but dismantled by the Department of Homeland Security."

Holdeman was echoing the criticism of disaster-management professionals nationwide who have warned for two years that retooling FEMA to respond to terrorist attacks and placing it within the vast Homeland Security bureaucracy has distracted the agency from its traditional mission of responding to natural disasters, and that doing so has made it less likely that FEMA will react well to either type of calamity.

Homeland Security's leaders have said for more than two years that the skills required to prepare for disasters, and to respond to them -- two distinct actions -- are essentially the same for natural and man-made events. Not so, experts rejoin. Terrorist attacks, by definition, come by surprise, and precise targets are hard to predict. So with attacks, response is critical.

But with natural disasters, targets are more predictable, and planners can mitigate damage early by, for example, mapping flood-prone areas, or issuing stronger building codes along earthquake fault lines. In the early 1990s, when homes in the Midwest were wiped out by floods, FEMA bought the land and made it a flood barrier. When the waters rose again a few years later, remaining homes weathered the damage.

The administration has maintained that preparing for disasters is largely a state and local responsibility. Yet, because states and localities have been told to spend their Homeland Security grants on terrorism response, they can't pull their weight on natural-disaster mitigation, says Jane Bullock, FEMA's chief of staff during the Clinton administration.

In the coming weeks, lawmakers will undoubtedly question whether FEMA should remain in its current, terrorism-focused department, or once again become independent.