Thursday, September 08, 2005

Wrong Priorities

Finally a good piece of analysis. From Newsweek:

In the weeks before Hurricane Katrina, state emergency-planning directors repeatedly warned that the Bush administration’s post-September 11 focus on terrorism was seriously undercutting the federal government’s ability to respond to catastrophic hurricanes and other natural disasters.

In a tough letter to Congress last July and in a private meeting with top Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials on Aug. 21, a group of state emergency-planning directors complained that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s traditional role of preparing for natural disasters “has been forgotten” under a DHS almost entirely devoted to the terror threat.


Internal Homeland Security documents obtained by NEWSWEEK lend support to the state directors’ complaints. Out of 15 “all hazards” disaster-planning scenarios approved by DHS and the White House Homeland Security Council last May, only three involved natural disasters, one document shows.


They also have fueled a push in Congress to undo at least part of the major federal government overhaul that created the Department of Homeland Security in the first place. Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan said this week he was introducing legislation to take FEMA out of DHS and restore it as an independent agency whose director would have direct access to the president.


The concerns about the direction of FEMA have been building for some time, according to Trina Sheets, executive director of the National Emergency Planning Association, a group that represents state emergency planners. Some of it revolves around funding. While grants to states and local governments for counterterrorism emergency planning have soared to more than $1.1 billion a year, funding under FEMA’s Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) program—which is specifically for natural disasters—was cut back $10 million by the White House this year to only $170 million, she noted.


Baughman said the disparities for Alabama are especially sharp. In his state, between $30 million to $40 million in federal funds are available to plan and train for hypothetical terror attacks while only $1.8 million is available for natural disasters. Although Alabama hasn’t suffered any terror attacks in recent years, it has had 24 natural-disaster declarations over the past decade, including three in the last year or so, Baughman said.


The internal FEMA documents underscore the point even further. Even before Homeland Security officials published their set of theoretical disaster scenarios last spring—which involved planning for such calamities as an “aerosol anthrax” attack and the unleashing of a “10-Kiloton Improved Nuclear Device”—an earlier February 2004 “National All-Hazards Exercise Schedule” prepared by Homeland Security showed the same imbalance. The schedule, marked “for Official Use Only,” included planning for more than 100 disaster scenarios, almost all of them terror incidents. In fact, only seven involved natural disasters—two earthquakes and four hurricanes, although two of the hurricanes were described as incidents in which relief and recovery efforts would be practiced “in context of a credible WMD threat during a natural disaster.”

My take: Based on my own personal experience, this is right on the money. I never thought placing FEMA under DHS made much sense, and I’ve thought that DHS’s priorities have been wrong-headed from the start.

FEMA understands disasters, and many of its programs have been in place and effective for years. Since its inception, DHS has been chasing its tail looking under every rock for the next 9/11 while ignoring the nuts and bolts issues that face our countries. Hurricane season comes every year. Long after you and I are dead, and 9/11 is a distant memory that our grandkids re-live on the history channel, Hurricane season will come. People are fleeting, Mother Nature endures.

The EMPG grant program cited in the article is an excellent example of DHS’s skewed priorities. The cuts cited by the article were originally going to be much deeper and there were going to be much tighter restrictions on how the money was spent. These restrictions were based on DHS’s view of the world, and not the reality on the ground.

This is some info from a NEMA report on how last year proposed changes to the EMPG grant program would have impacted state and local responders:

The President’s FY05 budget includes a proposal for a 25 percent cap on use of Emergency Management Performance Grant (EMPG) funding to support state and local personnel. A recent NEMA survey revealed that approximately 1,565 state level positions are supported through EMPG dollars. At the local level, approximately 2,170 full time positions and 1,184 part-time positions are supported through EMPG. Listed below is a sampling of the number or percentage of state and local emergency management positions funded in part by the EMPG program and the impact the proposal would have on state and local programs.

Here is how the survey assessed the potential impact on two key states in this disaster:

Alabama would have lost 10.5 Full time employees at the state level, and fifty at the local level. They assessed that emergency management preparedness and response capability would suffer statewide. Many county Emergency Management Agencies would have probably closed.

Louisiana would have lost 34 full time employees at the state level, 40 full time employees at the local level, and 65 part time employees at the local level. It would have had a severe impact on state and local programs.

States and local government depend on this money for their emergency management programs to survive. If these changes had been allowed to stand, the result would have been devastating. DHS was going to use this money as a bill payer for other projects. Luckily, congress intervened and the budget was not cut as deeply.

DHS’s list of 100 disaster scenarios is also another great example of an agency that just doesn’t get it. Back when I worked for the State of Texas doing homeland security stuff, we were asked to comment on this list of scenarios. It had everything short of a Martian invasion. I’m not kidding. It was ridiculous and unrealistic, and seemed more like the product of too many bad techothrillers and not an honest assessment of what actually faces our country. I don’t recall a NOLA levy breech being on the list.

So what should we do? First, cut FEMA out of DHS. Next, we need to seriously evaluate what, exactly, DHS is for. In my assessment much of the heat that FEMA is taking over Katrina is the product of the extra layer of bureaucracy that DHS has added to the federal response.

Note: Crossposted at Intel-dump.


At September 11, 2005, Blogger Doug said...

Democrats demanded Potus follow the stupid recommendation of an illegitimate commission.

GWB changed his position and went along and formed the DHS.

Two mistakes, 1 more giant, centralized bureaucracy.

At September 11, 2005, Blogger The Mad Fiddler said...

Dear AlextheA,

Your criticisms may be valid, even if they don’t pin-point the specific cause of this particular screw-up.


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