The media is now stumbling to uncover what went wrong with FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina. But the fact is that the story of the Bush administration's systematic undermining of the agency has been in plain sight for a while now. And it goes much deeper the incompetence of FEMA head Michael Brown and his coterie of political appointees.
I'm proud to say that my hometown paper, The Independent Weekly, published an eye-opening investigation into FEMA's demise over a year ago. In September 2004, writer Jon Elliston documented in fine detail the various ways Bush had undermined FEMA, especially when it was brought under the Department of Homeland Security, where its focus became national security, not responding to cataclysmic storms (except in Florida during the 2004 election year).
Here are some choice excerpts from Elliston's 2004 investigation:
[S]ome emergency managers inside and outside of government started sounding an alarm that still rings loudly. Bush administration policy changes and budget cuts, they say, are sapping FEMA's longterm ability to cushion the blow of hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tornados, wildfires and other natural disasters.
Among emergency specialists, "mitigation"--the measures taken in advance to minimize the damage caused by natural disasters--is a crucial part of the strategy to save lives and cut recovery costs. But since 2001, key federal disaster mitigation programs, developed over many years, have been slashed and tossed aside. FEMA's Project Impact, a model mitigation program created by the Clinton administration, has been canceled outright. Federal funding of post-disaster mitigation efforts designed to protect people and property from the next disaster has been cut in half, and now, communities across the country must compete for pre-disaster mitigation dollars.
As a result, some state and local emergency managers say, it's become more difficult to get the equipment and funds they need to most effectively deal with disasters.
And it's not just the budget cuts:
In addition, the White House has pushed for privatization of essential government services, including disaster management, and merged FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, where natural disaster programs are often sidelined by counter-terrorism programs. Along the way, morale at FEMA has plummeted, and many of the agency's most experienced personnel have left for work in other government agencies or private corporations.
In June, Pleasant Mann, a 16-year FEMA veteran who heads the agency's government employee union, wrote members of Congress to warn of the agency's decay. "Over the past three-and-one-half years, FEMA has gone from being a model agency to being one where funds are being misspent, employee morale has fallen, and our nation's emergency management capability is being eroded," he wrote. "Our professional staff are being systematically replaced by politically connected novices and contractors."
Read the whole thing here, it's worth it.