When Barack Obama arrived in Washington four years ago as a freshman senator, his first goal was a low profile. Hoping to dampen the high expectations he earned during his address at the Democratic National Convention, Obama cultivated friendships with other senators and developed his expertise on national affairs. One such partnership was with Sen. Tom Coburn, a conservative from Oklahoma, to remedy the failed federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Obama visited New Orleans to criticize the Bush administration's emergency management and demanded better oversight of reconstruction funds.
Now, President Obama finds himself in charge of the same agencies that mismanaged the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina: the Department of Homeland Security, and, principally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Though failures occurred on the state and local levels as well, those mistakes were compounded by FEMA's failure, as the principal disaster-response coordinator, to work quickly and effectively before, during, and after the hurricane struck.
The question of how to reconfigure federal disaster policy remains an open one. The answers have less to do with another bureaucratic reorganization and more to do with disaster prevention and even policy developments far from traditional disaster-management approaches.
Which isn't to say that reorganization hasn't been tried. In the three short years since the head of FEMA during Katrina, Michael Brown, left Washington in disgrace, his successor, R. David Paulison, has had four different titles during a series of organizational-chart shakeups. The most recent changes were implemented in 2006, when the Democrats regained congressional majorities after riding a political wave based partially upon national anger at the Katrina response. They passed omnibus FEMA reform legislation that incorporated suggestions from a select committee that investigated the disaster. The changes have been mostly well received.
According to Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi and chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, "Since the Post-Katrina Reform Act, FEMA has done a better job responding and preparing for emergencies by working with state and local officials." The reforms, which pointedly included a requirement that the FEMA administrator be qualified for the job, brought several agencies under FEMA's umbrella and authorized new initiatives to improve disaster planning and communications. It also clarified the command hierarchy from the FEMA administrator to the homeland security secretary and the president, making the administrator the president's principal adviser on emergency-response issues. Following these efforts, the agency's actions during more recent disasters, including wildfires in California, flooding in Iowa, and Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, have been more competent.
But problems remain. Since Katrina, it's become almost a cliché to stress increased focus on pre-disaster planning and preparing rather than just response and recovery efforts. Drew Sachs worked as a FEMA official during the Clinton administration and followed his boss, the widely admired then-FEMA Director James Lee Witt, into a private consulting firm involved with the Katrina response and reconstruction efforts in Louisiana. Sachs said that the new administration needs to focus on broad-based catastrophic-planning efforts that could be scaled down to respond to smaller disasters, and to specifically return to a focus on preparing communities for disasters. "The focus of emergency management needs to be on hazard mitigation," Sachs said. "The reality is if you're responding to an event and helping with recoveries, in some ways, you could argue, you've already failed." One example is the Hazard Mitigation Grant program, which allows FEMA to help local authorities identify threatened areas, promote flood-control programs that include retrofitting levees, modify infrastructure to be more disaster-resilient, and, in the wake of a catastrophe, purchase properties affected by natural disasters to prevent future loss.
An unfortunate legacy of September 11 is a skewing of national priorities and resources. When FEMA was folded into the new Department of Homeland Security after 9-11, its priorities shifted from natural hazard mitigation toward worries about terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. While that kind of planning remains essential, other areas under the agency's watch—particularly natural disasters—suffered from a lack of resources. Of the 15 scenarios that FEMA asks state and local agencies to prepare for, only two are natural hazards.
Retired Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré concurs with Sachs' focus on mitigation. Honoré, a veteran soldier who held commands in Europe and South Korea, was deployed as the military commander of the Hurricane Katrina response force after FEMA's failures became apparent. "For every dollar you spend in preparedness, you can save $9 in response and recovery," he observed.
In his post-military life, Honoré has made his goal encouraging a "culture of preparedness." Now working with a reconstruction nonprofit, The Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, he promotes basic ideas about preparedness that don't excite but that could save lives. These include policies like increasing first-aid education, using building codes to prevent emergency generators from being placed on the first floors of buildings in flood zones, and increasing insurance requirements for homes and businesses in flood zones.
"The standard I use is people are Red Cross ready," Honoré said. "Step one of the Red Cross program is you have a plan to evacuate. Step two is you've got a three-day supply of food and water stored at home, and step three is you stay informed, which means you have a weather radio. And there's lots of people along the Gulf Coast, from Florida on through Texas, who are not Red Cross ready... You need to include preparedness in education."
Other hopes for the new administration include a focus on better coordination between government authorities and nonprofit and private-sector participants in disaster-relief efforts. During the response to Katrina, tasks like replacing damaged cell-phone towers to provide communications for emergency responders, or reopening local businesses to supply necessities, were needlessly hindered, sometimes for days, by poor coordination between federal, state, and local officials. FEMA now has a department dedicated to preparing open lines of communication with various nongovernmental entities, but it consists only of a handful of staffers working out of the external-affairs office.
"There is progress being made; it's being made piecemeal and not holistically," Sachs said.
More attention also needs to be paid to local emergency-management authorities, who feel that FEMA hasn't been listening enough to their concerns. "You give folks at the local level the flexibility to do what's important to them, within a broad strategy," said David Miller, the director of Iowa's Emergency Management Department. The Department of Homeland Security "and FEMA have sometimes forgotten that and become too directed from the top down rather than listening from the bottom up."
Every emergency-management professional I spoke to thought that FEMA would work better outside of the Homeland Security Department, whose primary mission is law enforcement and intelligence, but recognizing the difficulties of further reorganization, most hope that Obama and his incoming homeland security secretary, Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, will at least promote discussion of the issues.
Napolitano has downplayed plans to move FEMA around, telling senators during her confirmation hearing, "Where I'm going to start right now is to take the organization we have right now, as opposed to moving a lot of boxes around." Napolitano was chosen for the homeland security post primarily because of her executive experience and work on immigration and border security. Though she has emergency preparedness experience from her time as governor, she is not known for her expertise on those issues.
Outside of FEMA, there are broader issues of federal policy that will affect the government's capability to respond effectively to disasters. One of the most critical is poverty and community development.
"If you have an impoverished area, you have to have a good evacuation plan because poor people may not have cars to leave with," Honoré said. "If they do have a car, they don't have a credit card to call and reserve a hotel. The majority of the people we evacuated out of the city were poor people."
After Katrina, anti-poverty efforts briefly became a national issue as disproportionate effects of the disaster on low-income, minority residents of places like the 9th Ward in New Orleans became clear. Similarly, reports suggest that Hispanics suffered more than others did during California's wildfires. The problems in these communities include everything from limited access to vehicles and mistrust of government officials to a lack of education and information, both generally and on emergency preparedness.
During his engagement with Katrina, Obama often drew connections between the disaster and the problems of wage stagnation or Bush administration policies on cutting both taxes and Medicaid. "Government is about making choices, and the choices that we've been making in the last four years have resulted in higher poverty rates," then-Senator Obama said in 2005.
Though somewhat deterred by a crowded agenda and an economic crisis that demands an immediate response, Obama confirmed his commitment to helping low-income Americans during his presidential campaign.
"What Katrina uncovered is what happens when a disaster hits an impoverished area and the impact of the disaster on the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and small businesses," said Honoré. "It takes a hard time to recover. The amount of time it's taking to get key decisions made appears to have taken just too long."
The White House Web site now says the new administration will take steps to rebuild the Gulf Coast and keep the old administration's "broken promises." Obama himself introduced a bill in 2005 requiring FEMA to make specific plans for groups that are disproportionately affected by disasters, focusing on low-income people, the disabled, and the elderly. Some of that effort could come out of broader cooperation with nonprofit groups who already work in those communities, even before a disaster strikes. Diana Rothe-Smith, the executive director of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, hopes that the future will hold broader coordination between FEMA and her member organizations, which include groups ranging from Catholic Charities USA to the Red Cross, and perhaps legislation to make it easier for the government to fund numerous efforts undertaken by those groups during a disaster.
In New Orleans and elsewhere, the struggle to combat poverty requires multiple approaches. Honoré stresses improving education, especially among minority populations; indeed, in the wake of Katrina, the city of New Orleans has launched a broad effort at K-12 school reform, and Obama has appointed a prominent education reformer, Arne Duncan, to be his secretary of education.
Honoré also recalled New Orleans in the middle of last century, when a black middle class flourished thanks to strong unions in the city's port industries. Part of Obama's plan to rebuild the middle class includes support for stronger unions. Obama has promised job creation through his stimulus legislation and plans to tweak taxes for working-class people. His administration also plans to create 20 "Promise Neighborhoods," based on the Harlem Children's Zone, which will bring intensive services to fight poverty and increase education. Expect at least one of those neighborhoods to end up on the Gulf Coast.
Obama has made clear in previous public statements that he takes the problems of disaster response and recovery seriously, but the effort to transform disaster policy is not the kind of easy fix that brings quick political points. Preparation, by its nature, is a long-term game, but the new president can witness the political consequences of the failure to think ahead from his predecessor.
"Some may be to blame, but all of us are responsible," Obama told National Public Radio in 2005. "This is something that has to be a 24/7 job and not something that we engage in after a crisis."