The New FEMA?

In an appearance before the National Press Club in Washington, FEMA Director R. David Paulison spoke on his vision for a "New FEMA".

President Bush named Paulison Acting Director following Michael "heck of a job" Brown's September 2005 resignation in the aftermath of Katrina. Paulison was nominated to officially take over the post in April of 2006 and easily confirmed by unanimous consent in May.

Here are some of the encouraging things Paulison had to say regarding improvements for the "New FEMA".

Regarding lessons learned:

* Communication-information sharing-was probably the single largest failure at the local, state and federal level.

* Logistics-knowing where supplies are and having the ability to deliver them to the right place, at the right time, and in the right quantity.

* Disaster assistance to victims-getting identities verified and registered to expedite the delivery of aid.

Regarding victim registration and delivery of aid:

* Increased registration capability to 200,000 a day online, in shelters and now with mobile units.

* Increased home inspection capacity of 20,000 a day.

* Activated a contract to assist in identity verification in future disasters; and

* Tightened processes to speed up delivery of needed aid while simultaneously reducing waste, fraud and abuse.

Regarding coordination with other agencies:

* Coordinating with our Federal partners at DoD, Northcom, HHS, DoT and the National Guard to clarify disaster roles and assign responsibilities before a disaster strikes.

* Strengthening our links with our State and local partners because they are the first lines of response.

* Regularly meeting with governors and state and local emergency managers to resolve issues and clarify roles in advance of a disaster.

In his speech, Paulison briefly describes what FEMA is doing in these areas and talks about other improvements being implemented. One particularly encouraging remark involved the timeliness of FEMA's response in relation to working with local and state government:

Now I'd like to talk about how we at FEMA and all of our counterparts around the country need to work better together when we're facing disasters. It's well established that all disasters are local; however, Katrina made it very clear that we need to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters as partners, standing side by side, so if there's a need in the system or a gap to fill we fill it before there's a failure in the emergency management system. The traditional model of waiting for State and local capabilities to be overwhelmed before federal assistance is on the scene of a disaster is no longer sufficient.

Unlike his predecessor, Paulison has an impressive resume in the area of fire/rescue and emergency operations. As Chief of Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue, he oversaw an agency almost as large as FEMA. He later joined FEMA and served as the Director of the Preparedness Division of the Emergency Preparedness and Response from 2003 to 2004, where he worked with first responders. Prior to that he headed FEMA's U.S. Fire Administration where he worked with state and local fire departments.

But Paulison was promoted from within FEMA's ranks. And it should be noted that he was head of the Preparedness Division prior to Katrina. It is not clear if the June 2004 "Hurricane Pam" exercise occurred on his watch as head of Emergency Preparedness, but it is abundantly clear that the warnings from that exercise were not heeded. As former Director Brown testified before the Senate Katrina hearings:

LIEBERMAN: ... You described it as a "catastrophe within a catastrophe."

BROWN: That's correct.

This was why I was screaming and hollering about getting money to do catastrophic disaster planning. This is why I specifically wanted to do New Orleans as the first place to do that. This is why I was so furious that once we were able to do Hurricane Pam that I was rebuffed on getting the money to do the follow-on. This is why I told the staff during that video conference call...

LIEBERMAN: The day before the hurricane.

BROWN: ... the day before the hurricane struck that I expected them to cut every piece of red tape, do everything they could, that it was balls to the wall, that I didn't want to hear anybody say that we couldn't do anything -- to do everything they humanly could to respond to this, because I knew in my gut, Senator, this was the bad one.

Former FEMA officials were quoted at the time as saying FEMA had been re-tooled to focus more on preparation for terrorist attacks:

The experts, including a former Bush administration disaster response manager, told Knight Ridder that the government wasn't prepared, scrimped on storm spending and shifted its attention from dealing with natural disasters to fighting the global war on terrorism.

The disaster preparedness agency at the center of the relief effort is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was enveloped by the new Department of Homeland Security with a new mission aimed at responding to the attacks of al-Qaida.

"What you're seeing is revealing weaknesses in the state, local and federal levels," said Eric Tolbert, who until February was FEMA's disaster response chief. "All three levels have been weakened. They've been weakened by diversion into terrorism."

In interviews on Wednesday, several men and women who've led relief efforts for dozens of killer hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes over the years chastised current disaster leaders for forgetting the simple Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared.

Presumably some of this occurred on Paulison's watch as head of the Preparedness Division. And presumably Katrina was a wake-up call for Paulision and the Bush administration regarding FEMA's role.

Even so, Paulison made a couple of other less than encouraging remarks during his speech to the National Press Club. For example, he again raises the "blame the victims" defense for FEMA's performance during Katrina, and lays the groundwork for using it again in the future:

Although FEMA can-and will do a better job of framing our respective roles and responsibilities within an emergency management context, I want to make it crystal clear that every American has a part to play in achieving national preparedness.

Any American who fails to prepare for potential disasters not only places the lives of their loved ones in jeopardy, he or she also may put the lives of first responders at risk and contribute to a more difficult response. The extent to which any one of us is victimized by disaster is determined, at least in part, by how well-or how poorly-we personally prepare ourselves and our loved ones for disaster.

So, what does personal preparation mean? This means having a plan, understanding that plan, and exercising that plan; and, It also means having adequate homeowners and flood insurance to recover after disasters strike. America must continue to develop a culture of preparedness.

His remarks do not address the needs of thousands of Katrina victims who were physically and/or financially unable to evacuate. He does not address what homeowners are supposed to do when their insurance companies won't honor thier claims, or what they should do when insurance companies stop issuing policies and pull out of a region altogether.

Regarding oversight, Paulison sends a clear message to the incoming Democrat controlled Congress:

Let us continue the good work developing and implementing positive change for emergency management. We must resist the call for additional investigations unless they are based on new evidence or allegations. Rather than conduct additional studies, inquiries and analyses that look backward to tell us what we already know, we should continue to focus our energy on correcting the problems. Process is important, but results are what we and our counterparts at the state and local level will be judged upon.

Never look back. This has been a hallmark of the Bush administration when confronted with failure. But while there have been hearings and general consensus on what went wrong, there are still questions about what's being done about it. Paulison has been at the helm for over a year now. Some of the reforms he talks about in his National Press Club speech are encouraging. But then there are the results that "FEMA and their counterparts will be judged upon" that he mentioned.

While the massive failures of policy and leadership surrounding the rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast cannot be laid entirely at the feet of FEMA, there has certainly been plenty of bad press for them of late. As Chris mentioned yesterday, a recent audit revealed hundreds of millions in fraud and waste related to the distribution of aid. Just last week, a federal judge ruled that FEMA had unfairly cut off housing aid, and in the process revealed a pattern of practices apparently designed to deny benefits to those most in need:

In denouncing the way the Bush administration has denied aid to tens of thousands of victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, a federal judge in Washington last week pulled back the curtain on a deeper mystery 15 months after the nation's costliest natural disaster:

What has happened to 2.6 million households that applied for disaster assistance but have been largely shed from the rolls?

The numbers, recently disclosed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are striking. FEMA projects that fewer than 4,700 families -- less than one-fourth of 1 percent -- will reach a $26,200 cap on all post-disaster aid by March, when an 18-month statutory cutoff takes effect. The figures are all the more surprising given the storms' scope, the incomplete reconstruction of New Orleans and the demographic profile of evacuees, who tended to be poorer and less well-insured and to have higher jobless rates than other Americans.

Anti-poverty advocates say FEMA's policies, combined with inadequate computer systems and support staff, unfairly pushed thousands of disaster victims toward homelessness, slowed the recovery of New Orleans and saddled cities such as Houston and Austin with housing crises. The critics cite damning federal court findings, FEMA policy reversals, and reports by Texas and Louisiana housing officials and lawyers that the government's actions hit the poor especially hard.

Or as one advocate is quoted in the article, "I cannot name another circumstance when so many public servants have worked so hard to provide such dehumanizing and shoddy service to citizens who were entitled to basic help and deserved fundamental respect."

Paulison also mentioned problems with communications among first responders and emergency management teams. This has been discussed since the early days following the Sept. 11th attacks, and was still a problem four years later during Katrina.

Five years later, one DHS "solution" is to urge local law enforcement agencies to drop the use of "10-codes" in favor of speaking "plain English" as a way to reduce confusion and improve communications among agencies.

In another breakthrough, a test of a new Air Force emergency communications system for first responders in the event of a national emergency disabled garage door openers for residents in a ten mile radius. (In fairness, this is not a FEMA system. But what about all the coordination among federal agencies the DHS is supposed to be implementing?) Hopefully Paulison's plans for improving FEMA's communications will be more effective.

Regarding logistics and contingency planning Paulison said:

"Pre-scripted Mission Assignments and Contingency contracts are in place. Interagency Agreements and Memoranda of Understandings have been set up with other federal partners, the private sector and voluntary agencies to avoid delays in providing needed services to affected communities.

He also mentions a contractor registry for debris removal. Hopefully these agreements will not include contracts for emergency evacuation services with companies who don't own any buses, or no-bid contracts for debris removal at inflated rates.

The point of all this being that while FEMA Director Paulison can't necessarily be blamed for everything that has happened in the past, he rightly points out that the problems are now known and he has been tasked with solving them. And he certainly seems qualified for the job, as long as DHS Secretary Chertoff and the Bush administration will let him do it. Fortunately the New FEMA was not tested by a major hurricane disaster this year (although there have been nearly 50 declared disasters in 2006 that FEMA has responded to), so let's hope FEMA has been using this time to "make hay while the sun shines" in preparation for the next Katrina.