FEMA gets a makeover

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By G.W. Schulz

The major news organizations hardly touched it, but a congressional appropriations provision reorganizing and renaming FEMA passed the Senate 87 to 11 last week. To his begrudging credit, Sen. Trent Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, originally wanted to make FEMA a federal agency independent of the Department of Homeland Security, a plan that would have stripped away the enormous layers of bureaucracy some say lead to the slow response to Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA’s director could now – if the restructuring works – directly access the president during states of emergency and move with more flexibility by possessing its own command and control structure during disasters, according to a statement from Lott’s office. Many of Lott’s constituents, of course, were badly battered during last summer’s hurricane season. And FEMA’s response to the storms was not unlike like an emergency vehicle full of paramedics arriving three days late to an accident scene because they had to call their boss at every stop sign.

Senators Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman, a Republican and Democrat respectively, co-sponsored the legislation and said that, in particular, the name change was necessary due to how poorly FEMA performed during Katrina. The change is slight – FEMA will now be known as the U.S. Emergency Management Agency. The real change is to the acronym, which citizens are most familiar with, good and bad.

The question that arises for me is this: Instead of spending God-knows-how-much changing the letterhead and those bright yellow agency identifications on the back of their weather-proof jackets, couldn’t they keep the old name and simply resolve to improve FEMA’s image by performing exceptionally well next time a disaster strikes? The name change smacks of an effort by some overpaid inside-the-Beltway communications staffer who’d rather fix things with a new name, a few poignant commercials and a press release rather than truly fix an embattled federal agency with a wasted reputation.

PBS’s Frontline did a great assessment of the response to Katrina last November. They concluded basically that Louisiana state emergency officials had in fact submitted a detailed list of items they needed for the recovery effort to the feds, but the feds never really got it together fast enough.

For decades, FEMA was known as a trash dump for political hacks until the Clinton White House set out to make it a respectable, cabinet-level agency headed by James Lee Witt, who earned a reasonably good reputation. He eventually left FEMA, however, and its status as a place to process political favors returned under Bush Jr. Making matters worse, after Sept. 11, the massive reorganization of the federal government brought FEMA under the broad umbrella of homeland security.

Despite Lott’s attempts, it’s appears unlikely that the legislation will survive the House without FEMA remaining where it is in DHS, but certainly Katrina taught us that disasters can come in many forms. It also taught us that for as much as the Republicans like to talk about reducing government bureaucracy, they’re just as likely to indulge in political patronage as the Democrats.

As far as current media coverage of the renaming goes, the Times at least did a story, but it was couched tellingly in a larger piece about domestic-security funding.

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