Last year, the much maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency was looking for a disaster to redeem itself in the eyes of the public and Congress.
Scarred from its poor performance during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, agency leadership openly said it would take a major disaster to prove itself. It got that chance when wildfires swept through Southern California.
FEMA’s performance last fall received kudos from state politicians, but the agency still has detractors. Staffing shortages and a lack of resources remain stubborn problems.
Nevertheless, FEMA’s chief David Paulison says the agency’s reaction to the wildfires serves as an example of how things have turned around since Katrina.
“FEMA’s activities in southern California in support of state, tribal and local activities provide a real-life example of ‘new FEMA’s’ commitment to leaning further forward and to working in close coordination with our partners at every level,” he tells National Defense in an email.
“New FEMA” is a term Paulison coined after taking the reins at the troubled agency.
The wildfires burned more than 500,000 acres of land and destroyed 2,000 homes. Even though the agency had responded to 300 smaller scale natural disasters since the hurricane, it gave officials the chance to finally prove to Congress that it was better prepared to manage large crises.
“The important difference between FEMA during Katrina and now is that they have actually learned to bring people together,” says Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Before the formal request for assistance during the wildfires came in, Paulison says, FEMA was already in touch with officials on the ground. Agency officials reviewed what supplies were available, where they were located and how to send to them to the right places, he says.
Response teams were put on stand-by to make sure there were no delays. In addition, leaders coordinated with other agencies, including the Small Business Administration, the Defense Department, the Army Corps of Engineers and others.
When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent in his formal request for a disaster declaration in the middle of the night, FEMA quickly reviewed it and sent it to the White House, Paulison says. Hours after the president signed it, the agency was on the ground. Schwarzenegger characterized coordination between the president and FEMA as “absolutely fantastic,” a far cry from the way response to Hurricane Katrina was described.
Despite this praise, the agency still has detractors — most notably, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General Richard Skinner.
In a recent report, “FEMA’s Preparedness for the Next Catastrophic Disaster,” the internal watchdog found that FEMA has made only moderate progress in preparing for the next major emergency.
The office studied nine key preparedness areas gave the agency low marks for eight of nine categories. FEMA scored the lowest for improving staffing and enhancing mission assignments. The only area in which it had achieved substantial progress was in improving Gulf Coast mass evacuation capability.
In the areas of planning and communication, the report says FEMA has only made modest progress in completing assessments in readiness at the national, state and local levels and achieving coordination among DHS components charged with improving interoperable communications, the report says.
“FEMA officials said that budget shortfalls, reorganizations, inadequate information technology systems, and confusing or limited authorities negatively affected their progress,” Skinner writes.
Despite increased funding the agency received after Hurricane Katrina, officials from FEMA’s national preparedness directorate report that they still “lack resources to get the job done,” Skinner says.
While FEMA has made progress toward becoming a better disaster response agency, the report suggests there is still significant work to be done.
One of the organization’s immediate needs is to fill all available jobs. Congress authorized the agency to fill about 4,000 positions by the end of this fiscal year.
“The most important element in achieving new FEMA is to increase the size of FEMA … our objective is to get to 95 percent staffing by the end of this summer,” says Harvey Johnson, FEMA’s chief operating officer, during a recent hearing before the House homeland security subcommittee on emergency communications, preparedness and response.
Paulison says the biggest challenge to staffing the agency is sifting through the applications to find the best-qualified personnel. He says FEMA received 26,000 applications during the first and second quarters of 2008.
Beyond staffing, another immediate concern is preparing for the transition to the next administration in January to prevent any gaps in disaster response. Officials are developing a transition plan and are filling career deputy slots to continue operations until the next president chooses its leadership team, Paulison explains. Regional administrator Nancy Ward was named senior career transition officer to carry the agency through the change.
FEMA is also working hard to boost operational capabilities, specifically for disaster response planning and communications, which are two of the agency’s top funding priorities.
The new national response framework, released in March, is expected to enhance preparedness by providing a detailed plan for response and short-term recovery. The NRF is the more comprehensive successor to the national response plan, which had been criticized by state and local officials for not meeting their needs.
“The NRF establishes a comprehensive, national, all-hazards approach to domestic incident response and incorporates many [national response plan] lessons learned,” Johnson says.
However, the inspector general’s office says the agency has only made modest progress in implementing the NRF and specific operational plans.
The agency hired 15 planners last year to provide operational analyses and to improve response to ongoing and future events, says Johnson. Regional planners are also being hired to coordinate development of federal, state and local plans. Additional staff will be hired this year and next, he adds.
The organization also developed — in coordination with the New York Emergency Management Office — a “gap analysis” tool for hurricane-prone states to identify capability shortfalls and more efficiently direct resources.
Officials are making efforts to improve interoperable communications for first responders as well, Johnson says. “For last year’s hurricane season, we went to each of the 18 hurricane impact states and worked on a communications plan and a gap analysis to ensure within themselves and the states they could communicate.” More funds from 2008 grants will be shifted to interoperable communications, he adds.
FEMA’s disaster operations directorate also created a new disaster emergency communications division to support all-hazards response and to meet national security emergency requirements, Johnson says. The agency is currently filling new positions in preparation for standing up the division, he adds.
Since Katrina, Paulison has also been forced to deal with a widening controversy concerning evacuees who were housed in trailers that contained formaldehyde fumes.
As of early May, there were still more than 20,000 households nationwide living in those trailers, Paulison says. FEMA planned to close all commercial and group sites with such units by June 1. However, mobile homes located on private sites, such as yards and driveways, would still remain. FEMA encourages those living on private sites to move into hotels or motels, Johnson says, but most people have shown little interest in doing so.
“Those people have lived in those [trailers], close to their families and work, and some don’t believe health reports,” he says.
Additionally, some residents are concerned that if they move they will be charged rent, Johnson says, but that’s not the case. “Anyone living in a travel trailer doesn’t have to pay rent.”
To avoid future problems, the agency is developing a national disaster housing strategy, which will clarify the role of the victims, the community, states and the federal government. Lack of clear roles was a major problem after Katrina, Johnson says.
The strategy will also examine the different types of housing, including sheltering, interim and long-term homes. Additionally, it will address planning for housing in disaster scenarios. FEMA planned to submit the strategy to Congress in June.
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