In a week full of evidence that the federal government is woefully unprepared to respond to natural disasters, the plaintive testimony of Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, just outside New Orleans, stood out. “We have been abandoned by our own country,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press. Broussard recounted how local officials had been told “every single day, ‘The cavalry’s coming, the cavalry’s coming, the cavalry’s coming.’ The cavalry’s still not here yet,” he said. “I’ve begun to hear the hoofs, and we’re almost a week out.”
It was an eerie echo of the aftermath of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which killed twenty-three people and exposed deep weaknesses in federal emergency programs. “Where the hell is the cavalry?” the emergency manager of Dade County, Florida, famously pleaded several days after Andrew blew through.
After Andrew the cavalry got its act together. Reforms engineered by President Clinton’s Federal Emergency Management Agency director, James Lee Witt, won FEMA bipartisan praise throughout the 1990s. But by the time Hurricane Katrina roared into the Gulf, FEMA–the government entity that could have done the most to alleviate the crisis in the storm’s wake–had been seriously hobbled by the Bush Administration. In 2002 FEMA was swallowed by the Department of Homeland Security–a move that the agency’s current director, Michael Brown, promised would give the country a new, improved “FEMA on steroids.” Instead, much of the agency’s natural disaster work was sidelined in favor of antiterrorism programs.
“I am extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded,” Witt told Congress on March 24, 2004. The former director has urged that the agency be withdrawn from DHS–a proposal that’s gaining traction in Congress following the Katrina meltdown.
While the Administration’s push to privatize key services was draining the agency of some of its most experienced personnel, Bush appointed two FEMA directors with no substantive experience in disaster management. The first, Joe Allbaugh, was Bush’s chief of staff in Texas. Allbaugh’s handpicked successor, Brown, was an official with the International Arabian Horse Association before coming to FEMA. “Our professional staff are being systematically replaced by politically connected novices and contractors,” Pleasant Mann–a seventeen-year FEMA veteran who was then head of the agency’s government employees’ union–complained to Congress last year. “A lot of the institutional knowledge is gone,” Mann commented later. So is morale: In a February 2004 survey of FEMA personnel, 80 percent said FEMA had become “a poorer agency” under DHS.
That’s not the worst of it. From its first months in office, the Bush Administration has chipped away at disaster mitigation programs designed to curb precisely the kind of damage now overwhelming Louisiana and neighboring states. Project Impact, a modest but influential mitigation program created by Witt in 1997, had spread to some 250 communities and all fifty states before it got the Bush budget ax in 2001. In Pascagoula, Mississippi, Project Impact was creating a database of structures in the local flood plain–crucial information that could have stemmed some of the havoc that city faces today. Such programs would have brought down the cost of repairing cities like Pascagoula: According to FEMA’s own estimates, every dollar spent on mitigation saves roughly two dollars in disaster recovery costs.
No matter: In 2003 Congress approved a White House proposal to slash in half FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program–credited with saving an estimated $8.8 million in recovery costs in 1999 in three eastern North Carolina communities alone after Hurricane Floyd. The same year, the Bush Administration instituted a new program of mitigation grants awarded on a competitive basis. Again the experts warned against this approach, saying that less affluent and smaller communities would lose out on desperately needed funds.
One of the communities that lost out was Jefferson Parish. Last year FEMA turned down all three of its requests for flood-mitigation grants. At the time, Broussard’s parish was home to more than 5,700 “repetitive loss structures”–buildings that had seen repeated flood damage and needed to be moved or elevated.
That missed opportunity in Jefferson Parish is one of many in the region that FEMA must now reckon with. It’s all too easy to play Monday-morning quarterback amid the vast suffering along the Gulf Coast, but it’s become all the more difficult to ignore the evidence that FEMA’s ability to keep our country safe in the face of natural calamities, undermined by our Commander in Chief, is itself becoming a disaster.