FEMA Is `Not Waiting' For the Winds to Die Down
Applying lessons learned from hurricane Andrew, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is getting a jump on Emily's cleanup
A YEAR ago, four days passed from the predawn landfall of hurricane Andrew on the south Florida coast to when federal forces mobilized for disaster relief.
The next day, the first 7,000 troops arrived, and the largest disaster-relief operation in American history got under way. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) - charged with coordinating the federal response - never caught up with public expectations after that four-day late start.
Not this time.
This past weekend, FEMA dispatched 12 tractor-trailer rigs from Miami north toward the anticipated Aug. 31 landfall of hurricane Emily. The trucks carried tents, cots, plastic sheeting, generators, and chain saws.
The agency's leaders were determined to be ready to descend quickly as soon as the first request for federal aid came in. They were also letting people know they were on the job, helping to mobilize local readiness with public-service announcements on the approaching hurricane distributed to broadcast stations in the eastern Carolinas as early as Aug. 27.
Unlike during the approach of Andrew, which was a much larger hurricane than Emily, FEMA headquarters in Washington went on 24-hour alert Aug. 30 to carry on the mobilizing of forces.
FEMA shows what disaster-management expert Louise Comfort calls a ``fundamental shift in attitude'' since hurricane Andrew. It has shifted from the passive posture of waiting to react to requests from governors for aid to a pro-active stance of anticipating needs.
``We're just on the ground faster,'' says FEMA spokesman David Martin. ``We're not waiting around.''
The federal government, by law, must still wait until a written request arrives from a state governor before declaring a federal emergency and activating its relief forces. The formal sequence of response is still that local governments are directly responsible for preparedness and immediate disaster relief, followed by state governments, and then supported by federal assistance.
After Andrew hit, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) waited almost four days before requesting federal aid, hoping that the Florida National Guard could handle the relief. By then, President Bush had already appointed Transportation Secretary Andrew Card to coordinate relief efforts.
But the legal formalities offered little shelter to FEMA against a public whose expectations of federal help were kept waiting. Among widespread criticisms of FEMA's management and structure post-Andrew, some called for abolition altogether.
FEMA is still not a state-of-the-art disaster-response agency, in the view of many outside experts in the field. Robert Kupperman, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who called for dissolving FEMA last year, still says the agency should be replaced with a smaller team managing disaster response within the White House, so that it could mobilize the resources of the federal government with White House authority and overview.
The management of FEMA has improved sharply over the past year, Dr. Kupperman says, partly because the Clinton administration is determined not to let FEMA and its Clinton-appointed director, James Lee Witt, fail.
FEMA has little clout of its own in the government, Kupperman notes, but President Clinton is protecting the agency to avoid tarring his administration with the sluggishness of response that became attached to the Bush administration after Andrew.
But the agency is still not prepared to cope with the scale of disaster possible with earthquakes that register 8 on the Richter scale or a major terrorist attack that brings down the telephone system or the wire that moves Federal Reserve funds around the country.
Ms. Comfort, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh, says the most dynamic emergency-preparedness network is probably the one the Environmental Protection Agency runs in case of hazardous-material spills. It includes local governments, local hospitals, homeowner associations, even zoos. FEMA's network, like most emergency networks, deals primarily with public agencies.
If FEMA's structure has not changed, attitudes have. ``It's as though they finally are listening,'' Comfort says. A number of FEMA officials have called her in past months to discuss ways to improve the agency, she says. She has written a book on emergency response, and some of the officials, she adds, have even read it.
The more activist stance of the federal agency can have an energizing effect on local agencies and even homeowners as a potential disaster approaches, Comfort says. As FEMA mobilizes its forces, it sends signals to others to mobilize as well.
This attitude shift marks FEMA's response to rising public expectations. Until the late 1970s, FEMA was primarily concerned with civil-defense preparedness for nuclear attack. It was the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency until 1979, when its name and role broadened.
But immediate disaster relief remained the province of local and state agencies. Federal support was geared to the rebuilding phase when outside financial and technical support was most necessary - from the Army Corps of Engineers restoring public utilities to FEMA itself disbursing emergency loans to homeowners.
That remains the federal role. But Washington officials have realized that the public won't stand for a federal role that appears to wait passively for the recovery phase of disaster response.