In the days to come, as the nation and the people along the Gulf Coast work to cope with the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, we will be reminded anew how important it is to have a federal agency capable of dealing with natural catastrophes of this sort. This is an immense human tragedy that will work hardship on millions of people. It is beyond the capabilities of state and local government to deal with. It requires a national response.
Which makes it all the more difficult to understand why, at this moment, the country's premier agency for dealing with such events - FEMA - is being, in effect, systematically downgraded and all but dismantled by the Department of Homeland Security.
Apparently homeland security now consists almost entirely of protection against terrorist acts. How else to explain why the Federal Emergency Management Agency will no longer be responsible for disaster preparedness? Given our country's long record of natural disasters, how much sense does this make?
I offer this obituary for what was once considered the preeminent example of a federal agency doing good for the American public in times of trouble such as now:
FEMA was born in 1979, the offspring of a number of federal agencies that had functioned in an uncoordinated manner to protect the country against natural disasters and nuclear holocaust. FEMA grew and matured, with formal programs being developed to respond to large-scale disasters and with extensive planning for what is called "continuity of government."
The creation of the federal agency encouraged states, counties, and cities to convert their civil defense organizations into emergency management agencies that would do the requisite planning for disasters. Over time, a philosophy of "all-hazards disaster preparedness" was developed that sought to conserve resources by producing single plans that were applicable to many types of events.