Say the word FEMA to the average American and words like “ineptitude,” “malfeasance” and even “corruption” will probably be used in the response. If the person being asked was ever the recipient of FEMA services, as were our friends after Katrina, many of the answers will be unprintable.
American government is, by and large, uncorrupted, certainly in comparison with much of the world. Billions of dollars in government contracts are awarded each year, and genuine scandals are relatively few.
Why does FEMA have more than its share, especially considering it’s a fairly new agency, so it should have been set up along modern lines of procurement.
If you want to take a moderately deep dive into the history of FEMA, you can probably do no better than this Wired article written by Garrett Graff. I’ll wait.
The latest scandal involves the failure to deliver millions of meals.
As the New York Times reports,
The mission for the Federal Emergency Management Agency was clear: Hurricane Maria had torn through Puerto Rico, and hungry people needed food. Thirty million meals needed to be delivered as soon as possible.
For this huge task, FEMA tapped Tiffany Brown, an Atlanta entrepreneur with no experience in large-scale disaster relief and at least five canceled government contracts in her past.
So here is the first question. Why? Why was Tiffany Brown selected?
Ms. Brown’s own answer was surprisingly candid, and incredibly damning:
“They probably should have gone with someone else, but I’m assuming they did not because this was the third hurricane” after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Ms. Brown said. “They were trying to fill the orders the best they could.”
Seriously? We’re the world’s largest economy and this is the best FEMA could do? I noticed that FEMA itself did not answer.
Nor is this incident a one-off. In November, AP reported that,
After Hurricane Maria damaged tens of thousands of homes in Puerto Rico, a newly created Florida company with an unproven record won more than $30 million in contracts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide emergency tarps and plastic sheeting for repairs.
Bronze Star LLC never delivered those urgently needed supplies, which even months later remain in demand by hurricane victims on the island.
FEMA eventually terminated the contracts, without paying any money, and re-started the process this month to supply more tarps for the island. The earlier effort took nearly four weeks from the day FEMA awarded the contracts to Bronze Star and the day it canceled them.
FEMA has a long sad record of mismanagement and bungling, perhaps due to the fact that it has 10 times the number of political appointees as any other agency. As Graff put it,
Its inadequate response to those public disasters made it an easy target for attack. And the critics were blunt: After FEMA fumbled its response to Hurricane Hugo slammed South Carolina in 1988, US Senator Fritz Hollings had labeled FEMA “the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I’ve ever known.” A year later, after it bungled the response to the Loma Prieta earthquake that disrupted baseball’s World Series in San Francisco, Representative Norm Mineta declared that FEMA could “screw-up a two-car parade.”
President Clinton vastly improved the agency, and “By the time George W. Bush took over the White House, FEMA had the highest public approval ratings it had ever had.” (Graff.)
But then after 9/11, Bush made a terrible mistake. He overhauled FEMA and took it out of the direct line of command, placing it under DHS.
The DHS reorganization devastated employee morale and cost FEMA its coveted direct access to the president as it was subsumed into a new Cabinet department. The General Accounting Office had warned against the move, saying, “Concerns have been raised that with the emphasis on terrorism preparedness in the aftermath of September 11th, the transfer of FEMA to DHS may result in decreased emphasis on mitigation of natural hazards. Opponents of the FEMA transfer, such as a former FEMA director [James Lee Witt], said that activities not associated with homeland security would suffer if relocated to a large department dedicated essentially to issues of homeland security.” (Graff.)
Hurricane Katrina exposed the clown show FEMA had become.
This confusion and lack of focus all came home to roost in August 2005 as Hurricane Katrina churned through the Gulf of Mexico toward New Orleans. The federal government’s response to the hurricane—combined with mistakes at the local and state government level—was an epic disaster in its own right. It triggered the strongest indictment of governmental incompetence of the 21st century. FEMA Director Michael Brown, a one-time horse breeder who lacked any emergency management experience, became a national punchline. (Graff.)
Obama made some attempts to right the ship, but FEMA under Trump, is back under the bus.
But it’s clear that the Trump administration isn’t necessarily giving FEMA any more respect than previous administrations: Months before Hurricane Harvey, the administration proposed a budget for DHS that included an 11 percent cut for FEMA to help pay for the border wall. (Graff.)
It’s clear FEMA needs a massive overhaul. Equally clear is that Trump will not be the president to do it.