Lessons from Katrina: FEMA’s Faults

Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf shore of the United States on Aug. 29, 2005, inducing devastation in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Twelve years later, America is dealing with a similar crisis in the form of Hurricane Harvey. A category 4 hurricane, Harvey will present obstacles similar to the ones Katrina did and should be treated with urgency. As the costliest natural disaster in American history — with $110 billion estimated in property damage — and the fifth deadliest American natural disaster — with figures ranging from 1,023 to over 1,800 casualties — Katrina generated long-lasting destruction to the area.

The catastrophic nature of the Katrina paralleled the disastrous relief efforts. From the days following landfall to several months after the flood waters subsided, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the primary U.S. agency responsible for responding to natural disasters, demonstrated that it was not capable of adequately handling the catastrophe. Inhibited by an overly bureaucratic response protocol, the agency poorly prepared and lethargically assisted rescue operations. FEMA’s inhibitions may come into play once more in relief efforts for Hurricane Harvey, as the agency still lacks the necessary resources and leadership to properly aid to disaster victims.

When the storm hit, more than 200 volunteer firefighters were in Atlanta learning the history of FEMA and its sexual harassment policies in order to comply with FEMA’s mandatory employee training rather than assisting victims in New Orleans. Additionally, FEMA’s intra-agency communication was embarrassingly poor; media outlets reported that citizens had taken shelter at the New Orleans Morial Convention Center before the former chief of FEMA, Michael Brown, even learned of it. That lack of communication induced an unnecessarily long delay in providing food, water and medicine to victims in the Convention Center.

Days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, state and local governments requested a total of 120,000 trailers for its displaced citizens; however, only 14,000 trailers were available across the country, sending trailer production into overdrive. FEMA is responsible for providing shelter in times of disaster, but over a month after the trailers request, FEMA had only provided 109 trailers. The federal government allocated $42 billion to FEMA immediately after the storm, and yet a full year and a half after the storm, just over 50 percent of that fund had been distributed.

How does an organization fail so astonishingly at its core mission? It’s simple: an executive branch that disregards its necessity. In 2002, George W. Bush streamlined FEMA into a newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS), shifting the focus of the once autonomous organization to a variety of other problems. A total of $2 billion of FEMA’s budget was allocated for counterterrorism and $180 million toward disaster relief funding. That contrasts with FEMA receiving over $3 billion directly for disaster relief prior to its merger into the DHS. With less funding for natural disasters, several of FEMA’s senior members and disaster relief experts stepped down and joined nonprofit groups where their expertise was comparatively valued. According to FEMA’s former Federal Coordinating Officer William Carwile, III, funds were cut so severely that training exercises for FEMA emergency responders ceased completely by 2004 — one year prior to Katrina.

To address some of FEMA’s most glaring limitations, Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006. These reforms included a reevaluation of the position of FEMA director. Previously, the position was in risk of being doled out as more of a political favor than by experience, as had been the case with Brown — who had no prior experience with disaster management. The role was more or less analogous to being the U.S. Ambassador to Saint Lucia. Under the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, the head would be required to have emergency management experience. While the changes at least led to better leadership, it further complicated the bureaucratic structure.

FEMA previously adhered to the Stafford Act, which attempted to codify disaster protocol, and rather than directly amending the Act, Congress created a separate, contradictory piece of legislation. That created a scenario in which a hypothetical hurricane could be designated as both a “major disaster” under the Stafford Act and a “catastrophic incident” under the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act simultaneously — leading to different response protocol on behalf of the federal government. In a catastrophic incident, the FEMA director would report directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security; however, a major disaster requires the FEMA director to report to other DHS officials first. With uncoordinated responses, comes slower response times, leading to a still flawed FEMA.

Ultimately, the organization still remains a bureaucratic mess ill-prepared to respond to a federal disaster. Today, Daniel Allen Craig and Daniel Kaniewski, Trump’s selections for Deputy Administrators of FEMA, are yet to be confirmed. Additionally, FEMA is streamlined under the DHS, preventing it from being autonomous in its relief efforts.  Further, Trump’s recent budget cuts to FEMA set the stage for a potentially underwhelming relief effort in response to Hurricane Harvey.

Perhaps the solution to disasters such as Katrina and Harvey lies within the private sector. The overly bureaucratic structure of the federal government delays adequate responses to time-sensitive emergencies like a hurricane. Already, Bass Pro Shops has donated $40,000 worth of relief supplies; the Tampa Bay Rays are donating all ticket, concession and parking revenues to Harvey relief funds during a three-game series; a Dallas donation center is requiring an additional warehouse to deal with an overflow of contributions. Perhaps bypassing bureaucracy altogether is the best way to provide relief directly to hurricane victims. Regardless, it must be better than relying on an organization still awaiting the appointment of two of its deputy administrators.

Brian Taggett is a College junior from Kalamazoo, Michigan.