and the real danger of “For Profit” disaster relief.
The recent weather related disaster that has devastated a large portion of the eastern seaboard has underscored a matter that has largely been ignored in the maelstrom of the Presidential Campaign; FEMA and whether or not it is viable as a federal agency.
Mitt Romney was asked a very simple question by a moderator during a presidential primary debate; “Should FEMA be done away with as a federal agency?” Mr Romney responded by saying that “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?”
That is an absurd notion and here is why:
The primary purpose of FEMA is to coordinate the response to a disaster that has occurred in the United States and that overwhelms the resources of local and state authorities. The governor of the state in which the disaster occurs must declare a state of emergency and formally request from the President that FEMA and the federal government respond to the disaster. The simple truth is that FEMA does not initiate any action or spend any tax payer money until the states ask the president for help.
Origins of FEMA and why it was created:
First let me give you ( and more importantly give Mitt Romney…) a little history lesson about the complex origins and more importantly, the reasons for creating FEMA ( the acronym of which stands for the Federal Emergency Management Agency);
OK, this part is admittedly really long and kind of boring. I don’t expect you to read every word of this dry historical account, but it is here for anyone that actually cares about such things and wants to gain some perspective, or perhaps for kids that are doing some lame book report and are looking for a quick data source to help them finish it because they have been putting it off for three weeks and now it is due tomorrow and if they get another D in this class they are going to be grounded…
Prior to the 1930’s:
A series of devastating fires struck the port city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, early in the 19th century. The 7th U.S. Congress passed a measure in 1803 that provided relief for Portsmouth merchants by extending the time they had for remitting tariffs on imported goods. This is widely considered the first piece of legislation passed by the federal government that provided relief after a disaster.
Between 1803 and 1930, ad hoc legislation was passed more than 100 times for relief or compensation after a disaster. Examples include the waiving of duties and tariffs to the merchants of New York City after the Great Fire of New York (1835). After President Abraham Lincoln‘s assassination at John T. Ford‘s Theatre, the 54th Congress passed legislation compensating those who were injured in the theater.
1930’s to the 1960’s
After the start of the Great Depression in 1929, President Herbert Hoover had commissioned the Reconstruction Finance Corporation in 1932. The purpose of the RFC was to lend money to banks and institutions to stimulate economic activity. The RFC was also responsible for dispensing federal dollars in the wake of a disaster. RFC can be considered the first organized federal disaster response agency.
The Bureau of Public Roads in 1934 was given authority to finance the reconstruction of highways and roads after a disaster. The Flood Control Act of 1944 also gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authority over flood control and irrigation projects and thus played a major role in disaster recovery from flooding.
Over the years, Congress increasingly extended the range of covered categories for assistance, and several presidential executive orders did the same. By enacting these various forms of legislative direction, Congress established a category for annual budgetary amounts of assistance to victims of various types of hazards or disasters, it specified the qualifications, and then it established or delegated the responsibilities to various federal and non-federal agencies.
In time, this ever expanding array of agencies themselves underwent a fractal-like reorganization. At this point you should take a deep breath and focus, because this is gonna get a little complicated. Ready? OK, here we go…
One of the first such federal agencies was the Federal Civil Defense Administration, which was created in 1950 and operated within the Executive Office of the President (EOP). That President being Harry S. Truman (the agency actually distributed posters, programs, and information about communism and the threat of communist attacks).
Functions to administer disaster relief were then taken from the EOP and given to the President himself, who delegated it to the Housing and Home Finance Administration.
Subsequently, the Office of Defense Mobilization was created.
Then, the new Office of Defense and Civilian Mobilization, which was, once again, managed by the EOP;
after that, the agency was renamed; the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, then, the Office of Civil Defense, which operated under the Department of Defense (DoD); the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW); the Department of Agriculture; the Office of Emergency Planning (OEmP); the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (replacing the OCD in the DoD); then it came under the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the General Services Administration (GSA) (upon termination of the OEmP).
I will stop here for a moment to allow your head to stop spinning… Just sit down and put your head between your knees… Better? OK, moving on…
1973 to 1979 – “The HUD Years.” ( Actually this part is really kind of important to know…)
In 1973, federal disaster relief and recovery was ostensibly brought under the umbrella of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). This was accomplished by Presidential Reorganization Plan No. 1 of 1973, and the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration was created as an organizational unit within the department.
Prior to this reorganization plan being put into effect, more than 100 separate agencies, at any given time, might be jockeying for control and jurisdiction of a disaster.
Confused yet? Yeah, now try sorting through that level of bureaucracy after your home and the homes of all of your neighbors and all of the roads and bridges that you would normally use to escape, have just been washed out to sea…
Who ya gonna call?
That’s a really good question, and finally in 1978, someone named Jimmy Carter answered that question;
A good idea: In an effort to simplify and consolidate the bureaucratic minefield and the mountain of red tape and the inevitable turf wars, that constituted what passed for disaster response and relief, The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was created. It was implemented by two Executive Orders in April 1979. The new agency initially incorporated the organizations that were responsible for civil defense and disaster preparedness under one roof.
A good idea gone bad: Ronald Reagan, while caught in the midst of a Cold War fever dream, decides to arbitrarily reinterpret FEMA’s original purpose to fit what he sees as it’s new role in fighting the Cold War, granting it power to cope with a nuclear attack and even, reportedly, implement martial law, and in doing so, prompting clashes over jurisdiction with the Justice Department. Meanwhile, the nascent, under-funded, agency is staffed with under-qualified and corrupt, political appointees; in 1985 FEMA Director Louis Giuffrida steps down amid allegations of fraud.
A good idea gone bad, and then left to rot out in the sun like your Aunt Bessie’s potato salad at that last family reunion picnic: Then, under the feckless and CIA-jaundiced watch of George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) FEMA’s lackluster response to 1989’s Hurricane Hugo prompts Senator Fritz Hollings to denounce it as the “sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I’ve ever known.” Yet nothing is done to improve the effectiveness of the agency. It remains a waste dump for political cronies. Then the agency is caught flat-footed again when Hurricane Andrew overwhelms southern Florida in 1992, leaving 160,000 people homeless and probably contributing to Bush’s loss in the next election.
A good idea when reconsidered by someone with a functioning brain: In 1993, President Bill Clinton appoints James Lee Witt as FEMA Director. In 1996, the agency is elevated to cabinet rank. Mr Witt initiates reforms that help to streamline the disaster recovery and mitigation process. The machine of bureaucracy becomes leaner and runs much more smoothly and effectively.
Which is why the Republicans decide that they needed to change things…
A good idea when reconsidered by someone with a non-functioning brain and who has absolutely no business being the President of the United States: The organizational and structural powerhouse that had run so well under FEMA Director Witt, during President Clinton’s Administration, was not continued by President George W. Bush. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, Congress passed the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to better coordinate among the different federal agencies that deal with law enforcement, disaster preparedness and recovery, border protection and civil defense. Cause, you know, adding insurmountable layers of faceless bureaucracy always makes things run so much more smoothly and efficiently.
President Bush appointed Michael D. Brown as FEMA’s new Director in January 2003, however, as a result of the Homeland Security Act that had already been enacted in the previous year during the flurry of political tap dancing that was meant to show the public that Congress was “On It,” as of March 1st of 2003, FEMA was relegated to a “cog” in the wheel of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate, which was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Department of Homeland Security under Director Tom Ridge.
Unfortunately Mr Ridge had prioritized the DHS and its wobbly “Jenga” tower of sub-agencies, to focus their various, limited resources almost entirely on the specter of terrorism and as a result, decided to move some of the FEMA’s preparedness functions to an office that was less than one-fifteenth of its original size.
To his credit; Mr Brown warned in September of 2003 that FEMA’s absorption into and dilution by, the DHS would make a mockery of FEMA’s new motto, “A Nation Prepared”, and would “fundamentally sever FEMA from its core functions”, shatter agency morale and break longstanding, effective and tested relationships with states and first responder stakeholders.” The inevitable result of the reorganization of 2003, warned Brown, would result in “an ineffective and uncoordinated response” to a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.
Ridge saw Brown’s memo as nothing more than a bureaucrat’s self serving turf war and ignored it.
Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that the vision of further unification of functions and another reorganization could not address the problems FEMA had previously faced.
The “Final Report of the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina“, released February 15, 2006, revealed that federal funding to states for “all hazards” disaster preparedness needs was not awarded unless the local agencies made the purposes for the funding a “just terrorism” function.
Emergency management professionals testified that funds for preparedness for natural hazards were given less priority than preparations for counter terrorism measures. Testimony also expressed the opinion that the mission to mitigate vulnerability and prepare for natural hazard disasters before they occurred had been separated from disaster preparedness functions, making the nation more vulnerable to known hazards, like hurricanes.
There were other errors as well; the Buffalo NY snowstorm in 2006 in which they did not reach stranded victims for three days, and the tornadoes in Arkansas in 2007 in which their rescue and recovery efforts were sub-par at best.
But then there was California and the wildfires:
2007 California Wildfires:
FEMA came under intense criticism when it was revealed that a press conference on the October 2007 California wildfires was staged. Deputy Administrator Harvey E. Johnson was answering questions from FEMA employees who were posing as reporters. Many of these questions were “soft ball” questions (i.e., “Are you happy with FEMA’s response so far?”), intentionally asked in a way that would evoke a positive response giving the impression that FEMA was doing everything right. In this way, any scrutiny from real reporters would have been avoided. Fox News, MSNBC, and other media outlets aired the staged press briefing live. Real reporters were notified only 15 minutes in advance and were only able to call in to a conference line, which was set to “listen-only” mode. The only people there were primarily FEMA public affairs employees
A casual reading of this account might make one wonder if I was not actually making the case for those that would like to do away with FEMA. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What history is showing us is that:
1. FEMA is not inherently bad or inept. It has only suffered from bad and inept management.
2. FEMA is critical to the health and welfare of the people that have been devastated by calamity and that are beyond any capacity to help themselves or their community to recover from that calamity.
3. The concept and impetus that created FEMA was and is good and right. It just needs to be managed and executed by the right people and with the proper goals in place.
Under President Obama FEMA has been systematically restored and reorganized. On March 4, 2009, President Obama nominated Florida’s state emergency management director, W. Craig Fugate ( a Republican ), to lead FEMA. He has a solid history of success and by all accounts he is making a serious effort at restoring the image and the track record of FEMA. When the chronicle of Hurricane Sandy and the hard work of the recovery is written, I believe that FEMA will have provided a good accounting of itself in that effort.
Why in the world then would Mitt Romney ever consider illiminating FEMA as a federal agency?:
Romney was the Governor of Massachusetts during the Mother’s Day Floods” of 2006 and is no doubt familiar with the dynamics of how FEMA operates. Here is an interesting article that was posted in the Lowell Sun as a result of his complete abdication of leadership or concern for those affected:
“We find it inconceivable that Gov. Mitt Romney claims the state can do nothing to help those residents still struggling to rebuild homes and businesses after the May flood. Massachusetts is sitting on millions in unspent emergency funds from Hurricane Katrina and more than $1 billion in cash reserves, yet Romney has failed to even respond to the Lowell delegation’s requests to discuss additional aid for victims. The governor’s spokesman — since Romney can’t be bothered to comment now that the photo opportunities have dried up even though some residents’ basements haven’t — said the state will not consider spending its own money for flood victims until it’s clear how much cash the federal government will give.”
The “highest bidder” in this scenario would have to be a corporate giant that is large enough to give the appearance of being able to handle a job of those immense proportions and of course, it always helps if they are a campaign contributor of equally massive proportions; A company roughly the size and shape of Halliburton…
OK, Let’s leave that hypothesis alone for a moment and just look at this issue without faces or names.
If we do that then the shorter and more obvious answer to the question is that this is just one more in a long line of moves to systematically hobble, then denigrate, then legislatively undermine, a federal agency in an effort to move it into the private sector. It’s a little thing that I like to call “The Privatization Game.”
Hey kids, gather the whole family and let’s all play… but first I will lay out the rules for you.
There is a clear and defined pattern to the privatization game. Here is a basic outline of how the game is played:
Step one: A big corporation wants to gain control of a thing that is currently being done by the government such as; running prisons, or providing material support to the military while they are fighting an unfunded and unnecessary war in the Middle East, or running a chain of charter schools, or hospice and rehab facilities, or delivering the mail, or even handling the clean up and lucrative construction contracts for rebuilding homes and infrastructure in a storm ravaged area or rehabilitating natural resources after some huge oil spill, or…well, you get the idea.
Step two: That big corporation finds a willing congressional partner; someone that is willing to work for their interests in congress.
Step three: Fund that congressional partner’s election campaign.
Step four: Once elected, that Congressman or Senator achieves a valuable seat or even control of a committee that has oversight of the thing that the private corporation wants to take control of.
Step five: That Congressman or Senator, by means of his committee position, orchestrates a severe reduction in the funding for the thing, agency or the government service in question.
Note: Just for bonus fun during this step you could fabricate some crazy conspiracy theories about the agency to foster suspicion and mistrust within the general population, like for instance; You could say that they are secretly constructing concentration camps to put us all in when they take over the government during some pre-designed national emergency, or that they are the secret government being run by the; a) Freemasons, b) Illuminati, or c) Gay Freemasons ( I mean, think about it, who else could come up with those funny little hats that the Shriners wear…)
Step six: That agency suffers from underfunding, under-staffing and eventually, low morale. Consequently it performs poorly and supports the argument that the Congressman or Senator is making that the government can’t do that thing as well as a private company could do it.
Step seven: After months of meaningless committee hearings, a lucrative government contract is awarded in a “no-bid” fashion which results in that thing or service being done for three or four or five times the cost of the Federal Government doing it, and that big corporation’s investment in the election campaign of their congressional partner provides its return.
Step eight: The unsuspecting public foots the bill for all of this through loss of government services and loss of revenue as a result of subsidization and huge tax breaks for the corporation which eventually monopolizes and controls all aspects of an industry.
Wasn’t that fun? Great! Now, who want’s to play for control of the EPA and the lucrative Fracking rights on Federally held lands and make some backroom deals that create loopholes in existing legislation that would exempt them from disclosing what hideously toxic chemicals they are pumping into the ground to exploit and plunder our natural resources?
OK. I know that sounds oversimplified and really cynical but I mean, come on… Did you really think that guys like the Koch brothers or Foster Friess or Sheldon Adelson are contributing hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to defeat President Obama and Democrats in all fifty states because they are just really, really patriotic?
Imagine for a moment the basic concept of monetizing the work of disaster relief. In other words, making disaster relief a “For Profit” business model. The very thought is rather sickening, but lets consider exactly who would be paying for such services;
The government would have to sign-off on a contract well in advance of said disaster, with some private company which would hopefully come in when the inevitable disaster finally hits and then everyone that is now without power, or shelter, or food, or adequate sanitation, has to wait around while this private corporation is able to somehow implement and coordinate the rescue and relief efforts. It would take a massive company to handle such a monumental task. A company like, oh gee, I can’t imagine…unless…maybe… Oh, I don’t know… let’s just go with Halliburton.
Which is very convenient because Mr Romney already has a very comfortable relationship with Halliburton in the person of Dick Cheney, who, coincidentally, held a fund raiser for him near his home in Wyoming. From 1995 until 2000, Dick Cheney served as Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of Halliburton. Gee, I wonder if any representatives of the company were at the fund raiser? Naa. Probably not. I mean what would Halliburton possibly want from a Republican Presidential Candidate.
OK, look, I know that it sounds like I am just dumping on the private sector and portraying them as all the same. The truth is that I am not. I actually believe that there is a place for the private sector to contribute in a very constructive way, to the process of prevention and preparedness, which, if you think about it, is much more productive that simply reacting to the aftermath of a disaster; That place is in building and improving our infrastructure. And doing so is a win for everyone.
OK, kids. Now finish that book report and get to bed. I promise not to tell your mom that you waited until the last minute… again.