Saturday, February 18, 2006

FEMA and DHS

George Buddy asked about FEMA's proper role, specifically its relation to DHS. I think a part of the problems we saw with Katrina were caused by the DHS reorganization. There's no doubt that reporting lines got confused--Brown felt loyalty to the people who bumped him up from FEMA deputy director to DHS undersecretary, not to Chertoff who arrived later. When Brown had a hot potato, he turned to his friends, not to his new boss. Chertoff, who was relying on Brown to alert him to problems, had his focus elsewhere. Just as we didn't realize before 9/11 that bin Laden could mount an attack much deadlier than any previous one, he (and we) didn't realize that Mother Nature could also mount an attack more devastating than prior hurricanes.

It also seems clear that the Bush administration after Sept. 11 said that the "war" on terrorism was more important than disaster preparations. Congress agreed and pushed the DHS reorg. There was a smokescreen of rhetoric whereby the policymakers tried to convince themselves that DHS would be a more efficient use of resources. There's some logic to this--the response to a natural disaster and an attack will often be similar and the coordination with state and local first responders must use the same infrastructure. But the reality, as any experienced bureaucrat knew, was that creating DHS would cause us to be less prepared over the next few years, both for disaster and terror, than the alternative. The truth is any reorganization uses so much bureaucratic energy that the sum is significantly less than the whole for several years. So we won't know for another 10 or 20 years whether there's a net improvement or not.

Suppose Mr. Negroponte came to the President and said: "Sir, our enemy has dispatched a team that has the capability of killing a thousand people and destroying 50 billion dollars worth of property. Current intelligence shows that the team is likely headed for New Orleans and has a 50 percent chance of carrying out their mission." What would Bush do? He certainly wouldn't do what he did the end of August. (Or maybe I should say--he would do something, not nothing.)

2 comments:

  1. Bill, thanks for looking at this. >"But the reality, as any experienced bureaucrat knew, was that creating DHS would cause us to be less prepared over the next few years, both for disaster and terror, than the alternative. The truth is any reorganization uses so much bureaucratic energy that the sum is significantly less than the whole for several years."

    This reminds me of a while ago somebody asked how we could have won world war two with bureaucracies created in 1942 and disbanded in '45 or '46.

    Anyway, FEMA was in great shape under Clinton and Jamie Lee Whitten and proved its mettle time and time again. It had to be because, after Andrew in 92, the critics would eat you for lunch if you stumbled just once on a hurricane or other disaster.

    FEMA should go back to Independent status without a middleman (DHS)betweem the director and the president.

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  2. I've my reservations about separating FEMA out again. That's another reorganization with attendant confustion. An independent FEMA wouldn't automatically revert back to where it was under Witt.

    Bureaucratic reorgs should be evaluated on their utility over a long time scale.

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