Monday, December 04, 2006

Disaster Prep: My Opinion

I'm still working my way through a vertitable TON of literature on disaster preparedness (Part I, Part II), and I keep coming back to a couple of inescapable facts:

  • As it was established by President Carter, FEMA brought together disparate segments of the Federal government's emergency response program (the Federal Insurance Administration, the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration, the National Weather Service Community Preparedness Program, the Federal Preparedness Agency of the General Services Administration and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration activities from HUD. Civil defense responsibilities were also transferred to the new agency from the Defense Department's Defense Civil Preparedness Agency [Source: FEMA History]). This centralized the government's resources and expertise and streamlined the process by reducing waste and duplication of effort.
  • When President Clinton nominated James Lee Witt as Director in 1993, he chose a man who had had experience as a state emergency manager (the first FEMA director with such a background). He also elevated the FEMA Director to a Cabinet-level position, showing his (Clinton's) commitment to emergency preparedness.
  • george w. bush, on the other hand, appointed Joe M. Allbaugh, a political crony with zero emergency management experience. After FEMA was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security, Micheal D. Brown -- he of "heckuva job" fame -- was named Director.
  • After the creation of DHS, much of FEMA's training and preparedness functions were eliminated, out-sourced (of course to bush cronies), or transferred to other DHS entities that did not have the expertise, resources, or even desire to perform them effectively. Katrina and Rita were a direct result of this cavalier approach to disaster management.
This leads me to the conclusion that bush viewed (and probably still does view) FEMA as nothing more than a sinecure for his sycophants. Brown, after all, was head of the Arabian Horse Association, a background which did not appear of much use in emergency management (although at least one wag pointed out that Brown did, in fact, "do a heckuva job", in that not one Arabian horse was lost in Katrina).

I would urge the new Congress and Senate to begin a comprehensive review of FEMA, and DHS as a whole, with the goal of re-creating FEMA as a separate Cabinet-level agency, designed to concentrate on emergency management and disaster response efforts, as it did under Carter and Clinton.

Certainly, terrorism is not going to go away as a concern for Americans, and some sort of DHS-like agency is still going to be required. I would posit, however, that a restructured DHS-2 (for lack of a better term) could function efficiently as a component of a reconstituted FEMA, with its terrorism expertise (such as it is) supporting the overall preparedness goals of FEMA.

DHS, as it was envisioned by the bush administration, had terrorism as its primary -- if not sole -- focus; all other department functions were subordinated to terrorism. In an address in February, 2004, Secretary Tom Ridge (another whose only claim to disaster expertise was supporting george w. bush), said:

Our mission is: "to lead the unified national effort to secure America," to "prevent and deter terrorist attacks and protect against and respond to threats and hazards to the nation." That, in fact, is our Department's Mission Statement. [Emphasis added]

Ridge made it abundantly clear that the department's main focus was to be the "sexy" issues, not the mundane. Yet, it is the mundane issues that killed people in Louisiana and Mississippi.

A critical component of disaster planning (or any planning, for that matter) is "thinking outside the box": what could happen? what can go wrong? and how can I prevent or lessen the impact of what does go wrong? This requires the ability to think creatively, to examine an issue for all possible contingencies, to rank those contingencies by likelihood and impact, to determine mitigation strategies, and to decide if the risks identified can be accepted, mitigated or transferred - in other words, it requires the ability to perform a full "risk assessment" on a contemplated project (or emergency). The lack of independent thought fostered by the bush administration, however, has resulted in DHS planning "for the last attack" (as Bruce Schneier puts it), instead of examining potential new attack modalities.

What should happen is this (and this is drawn from the recommendations of assorted experts):
  • Re-establish FEMA as a separate, Cabinet-level agency, with its top management drawn from experienced emergency managers;
  • Restructure TSA as a regulatory agency, eliminating its operational aspects (since they haven't worked out so well, as I and many others have pointed out in the past);
  • Return TSA's operational duties to the private sector, with much greater oversight to prevent abuses;
  • Remove the intelligence-gathering aspects from DHS and place them within the FBI, and beef up the FBI's existing Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR, their version of Internal Affairs) to prevent abuses similar to those we have already seen;
  • Transfer DHS's existing planning and logistics functions to the reconstituted FEMA;
  • Perhaps (and I'm not 100% sure of this) consider taking the enforcement operations of DHS -- Immigration, Customs, etc. -- and place them in a separate agency (this agency may want to retain the DHS name);
  • Increase Congressional oversight of all revamped DHS/FEMA-type operations, and ensure that scarce resources are not being squandered; and (perhaps most important)
  • Beg, plead, cajole, and if necessary, bribe James Lee Witt into returning and rebuilding the agency he took to the pinnacle of success before it was gutted by the bush administration.
What will happen, of course, is probably something vastly different.

At least, until the grownups are back in charge.

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