Close the Turkey Farm

Miller-McCune's experts offer solutions to problems that were under-discussed during the presidential campaign.
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In 2003, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was combined, with more than 20 other agencies, into the new Department of Homeland Security. The inclusion of FEMA in DHS was controversial, for at least two reasons. First, there was nothing about the Sept. 11 attacks that suggested a need to move FEMA. FEMA's mission was, in the 1990s, to support state and local government in their responses to a range of disasters, and most of these efforts were successful. Second, it was clear before the Department of Homeland Security was formed that President Bush would appoint political allies, not competent disaster management professionals, to lead the agency.

That Bush took this path was remarkable given the history of FEMA, which never really found its footing between its founding in 1979 and the beginning of the Clinton administration in 1993. FEMA had gone through periods of obsession with unrealistic nuclear war planning, thereby making it unprepared for the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew in 1989 and 1992. The agency became known as the "Turkey Farm" because of its management by third-rate political appointees.

The FEMA "golden age" came under James Lee Witt, Clinton's FEMA director. Witt led FEMA from pariah to one of the most respected agencies in the government. Its responses to major disasters such as the 1993 Midwest floods and the 1994 Northridge earthquake showed great improvement, as did increased hazard mitigation efforts. But Witt left in 2001, and the Bush administration completely undid FEMA's progress by appointing incompetent administrators and burying the agency inside the DHS. After Hurricane Katrina, the hard lessons of the 1980s were relearned: A professional disaster manager now runs FEMA, as required by the Post-Katrina Reform Act, which has also restored some independence to FEMA. But these reforms do not remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security, an agency whose senior leaders have never understood the importance of a professional and trustworthy federal disaster agency.

The way forward for President Obama is therefore simple. First, the president should remove FEMA from Homeland Security. Minimally, he could issue an executive order that indicates that the FEMA director reports directly to the president during disasters. The new FEMA administrator should, like James Lee Witt, be allowed on his or her own initiative to hire professionals with disaster experience to run the agency. FEMA should work closely with DHS, but during emergencies, the FEMA director needs to communicate directly with the president — and needs to be able to invoke the name and powers of the presidency to press for real action for disaster relief and recovery.

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