Making Sense of Disaster

This week, Mike Brown, the George W. Bush crony who headed the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and bungled the Katrina disaster response, has finally resigned. In the wake of that move, however, I have a confession to make: I, too, was a disaster know-nothing for FEMA.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, I joined FEMA as a member of their reserve cadre of part-time disaster workers. Much like the Army Reserve, we disaster workers were on call in the event of a hurricane, flood, or terrorist attack. To join, there were a couple of requirements: You had to be able to drop everything and be deployed at a moment's notice, and you had to have skills FEMA would need when the shit hit the fan. As a result, the cadre was filled with citizen disaster workers who were often self-employed or retired, people who could fly off at a moment's notice to Florida or American Samoa. They included accountants, tech support people, ex–law enforcement officers, and, like me at the time, former media people.

It might surprise people to know that FEMA's use of citizen helpers is by design. A part-time corps of disaster workers is essential because no sane taxpayer would pay for a full-time FEMA staffed to the size needed for a once-a-century, worst-case disaster. So the militia approach makes sense. It also means they sometimes throw inexperienced people into the breach.

In my case, I was trained to help handle the public information duties in a disaster field office, everything from writing press releases to documenting our disaster work. Cadre members went through at least a week's training, and we were paid decent wages, though not enough to make a living since you might only work a few weeks or months a year. When deployed, we were official federal employees with government credit cards and FEMA windbreakers, worn everywhere except in places like Montana, where folks worry about the agency's black helicopters aiding a United Nations invasion from Canada.

I have written previously about my stint in the Region X FEMA bunker in Bothell during a homeland security alert in 2001 (see Mossback, "Googling in the Bunker," Aug. 4, 2004). It turned out to be an essentially low-risk—for me and FEMA—training exercise. But it might have been otherwise. Had there been a major terrorist attack on the West Coast, as threatened, I would have found myself deeply in over my head—a mini–Mike Brown. Fortunately, that terrorism threat turned out to be bogus. I was mightily relieved that I didn't harm the nation, or anyone else.

That was partly because my supervisors were experienced disaster pros and knew better than to put me in a position to fail. During the nine months I was in the cadre, I was twice deployed in the field. Both times were to work in disaster field offices after the worst was over. In the aftermath of spring floods in Alaska and a windstorm in Oregon, I helped push some of the piles of paper that accompany a federal disaster and enable assistance to flow to victims. It's as unglamorous as it gets, but it's government at its best: providing real, tangible aid to people who—a few inevitable fraudsters aside—really need it. Like an iceberg, 90 percent of disaster work isn't on CNN. It's too dull even for C-SPAN.

In my stint with FEMA, I got a look inside our country's disaster recovery machine. Watching Katrina, I have seen both the FEMA I knew and the FEMA I don't know.

FEMA's man on the ground in Louisiana, Bill Lokey, is from our area and is one of the most experienced disaster pros in the business, a veteran of 9/11, Oklahoma City, Pacific typhoons, and winters in Antarctica. He was in charge of FEMA's disaster work here following the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, and I served under him briefly in Alaska. He seems like exactly the kind of steady, experienced guy you'd want in this situation.

On the other hand, over the past couple of years, former FEMA employees and disaster professionals have been warning that the agency is being gutted and marginalized within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), not merely employing amateurs but being run by them. Much of this criticism is exactly right.

The leadership problem is especially evident if you read the National Response Plan—the 2004 disaster blueprint drawn up by DHS. It used to be that federal disasters could only be declared after the fact when it was clear that the scope of the disaster had outstripped the abilities of the state authorities to cope with it. When that happened, FEMA could ride in like the cavalry, though always a step or two behind the event.

In the post-9/11 world, however, DHS's plans envision a scenario exactly like Katrina: a pending disaster of such overwhelming scope that federal response will need to be full mobilized proactively— in advance—and managed by DHS and the White House. Declaring Katrina an incident of national significance before the fact would likely have saved time and lives. Instead, the declaration wasn't made until two days after landfall.

Why that happened hasn't been fully explained. Perhaps Bush and DHS head Michael Chertoff were hesitant to pull the trigger, fearing the mistake President Gerald Ford made with the infamous swine flu epidemic that never happened, ordering a cure (inoculations) that took more lives than the disease. Or perhaps they wrongly and negligently expected that a Brownie-run FEMA could handle any storm. I suspect that part of the answer is that Bush and Chertoff were caught in transition between doing things the old way and the new. They froze in Katrina's headlights and discovered how unforgiving disasters can be.

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