The Gathering Storm

One year after Hurricane Katrina, what if it’s not just once in a lifetime? Making sense of our disaster-prone future.

By Elaine Kamarck

Tagged FEMANatural Disasters

The lingering anger in New Orleans over the poor federal response to Hurricane Katrina is such that you can buy a T-shirt that reads “FEMA: Federal Employees Missing in Action.” By now, one year after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, most people are familiar with the catalogue of missteps by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the days after the storm first hit. They read like recollections from a bureaucratic nightmare. FEMA denied local officials’ requests for rubber rafts needed to rescue victims because it was afraid the polluted waters would ruin them. It issued a press release telling first responders in neighboring states not to respond to the hurricane without being requested and lawfully dispatched by state and local authorities. It turned away trucks filled with water and refused to accept much-needed generators. It wouldn’t allow food to be delivered to New Orleans by the Red Cross. It ignored Amtrak’s offer of trains to evacuate victims. It tied up valuable offers of foreign aid in the form of water-purification systems and rescue ships. And it left 20,000 trailers, desperately needed for temporary housing, sitting in Atlanta.

Why was the response to Katrina so inadequate, and can FEMA be
fixed? On the surface, the outlines of the problem are clear enough: By
placing FEMA, formerly an independent agency, into a new Department of
Homeland Security (DHS), the Bush Administration severely weakened
FEMA, causing problems that can only be fixed by restoring its
independence. But, beyond this reshuffling of boxes on the federal
government’s organization chart, FEMA’s response points to a deeper and
more serious problem. Hurricane Katrina may not be the
once-in-a-century storm it was thought to be. Rather, in all likelihood
it is a harbinger for what is likely to come in an era of global
warming. Just as the attacks of September 11 served as a wake-up call
for what could be decades of catastrophic terrorism, Katrina must be
seen as a wake-up call for an era of potentially new and explosively
expensive natural disasters.

Taken together, we can expect a future where today’s “emergencies,”
both natural and man-made, are more common–and more deadly. Yet our
federal government–the only institution that can coordinate and pay for
disaster response–is woefully unprepared to respond to, and pay for,
these emergencies. Three major problems loom: The local-state-federal
arrangements that have governed emergency response may no longer work
in an era where disasters are so large that they overwhelm first
responders; our system of emergency supplemental budgeting risks
creating a fiscal emergency in which successive disasters push the
nation into deeper and deeper fiscal trouble; and our seriousness about
preventing disasters in the first place involves a level of political
commitment previously unheard of in the United States. In other words,
reforming FEMA is just a first step. Ultimately, the federal government
must rethink its entire approach to disaster prevention and response.

FEMA’s Failed Past

Created in 1979, FEMA was, throughout the 1980s, the dumping ground
for political appointees; one report in the early ‘90s showed that it
had 10 times the number of appointees as other agencies. The low point
for the agency prior to Katrina came in 1992, with its failure to
respond effectively to Hurricane Andrew, which left 250,000 homeless.
FEMA’s response to Andrew was similar to that during Katrina, perhaps
because the director at the time was a man who–like Michael Brown, the
director during Katrina–had no prior disaster experience. Instead of
preparing his agency to handle disasters, Director Wallace Stickney’s
major claim to fame had been forcing an openly gay employee of FEMA to
reveal the identities of other gay employees.

This began to change in 1993, when President Bill Clinton appointed
James Lee Witt, who had been his head of emergency response in
Arkansas, to run FEMA. At the time, there were calls in Congress to
abolish the agency because of its poor performance during Andrew. Witt,
however, performed the government equivalent of a corporate turnaround,
slashing tiers of bureaucracy and draining the patronage swamp. Witt
reorganized FEMA around an “all-hazards response” approach and improved
the agency’s performance so much that during the 1994 Northridge
earthquake in California, FEMA was applauded for its timely payments
and assistance to victims. FEMA’s re-organization and subsequent
performance was so good that it became the poster child for Vice
President Al Gore’s reinventing government initiative. FEMA continued
to perform well in the first year of the Bush Administration,
particularly after September 11. In those days, many of Witt’s reforms
were still in place, and the agency was headed by Joe Allbaugh, a man
who, like Witt, was a close confidante of the sitting president.

The re-deterioration of FEMA began in the third year of the Bush
Administration, when it was placed in the Department of Homeland
Security. Including FEMA in DHS blurred its mission and focus, a
not-unusual occurrence when an independent agency is folded into an
enormous new department. Prior to Katrina, warnings were issued by the
Government Accountability Office (GAO), as well as a host of state and
local emergency preparedness planners, that FEMA’s preparedness mission
was getting lost in layers of bureaucracy; it was likewise unclear how
terrorism fit into the all-hazards paradigm. When FEMA’s
state-grant-making process got rolled into an overall departmental
grant-making process, states found that they could get grants to buy
protective gear against a biochemical attack, but they could not get
grants for more traditional and probable threats like flooding. And,
predictably, as FEMA’s mission was blurred and its autonomy stripped
away, it began to lose its longtime executives. The first to go was
Allbaugh, whose departure meant the loss of direct access to the
president, a feature of emergency response that is nearly as important
as prior experience.

By the time Katrina made landfall, then, FEMA had spent slightly
more than two years suffocating within DHS. Its vision was blurred, its
morale sapped, its talent gone, and its leadership practically
nonexistent. Those who remained were uncertain of their own authority
and their relationship to the rest of the government. It is no surprise
that so many mistakes were made and so much confusion reigned. This
history, and the agency’s performance during Katrina, has led many to
accuse the Administration of setting up the agency to fail in the face
of a major emergency. The solution has been just as clear: In the
immediate aftermath of Katrina, Senator Hillary Clinton introduced
legislation to restore FEMA’s independence. And by the spring of 2006,
two House committees had approved legislation that would pull FEMA out
of DHS.

Such a correction, to make FEMA a freestanding agency once again, is
important for a variety of reasons. First, making the agency report
directly to the president would make it possible to recruit top talent
to lead FEMA. Second, a freestanding FEMA is the only way to allow it
broad authority for action across the federal government, a vital step
in the face of disasters that could easily overwhelm first responders
and require broad federal action. Third, it would clarify some of the
thorny issues of federalism that have arisen through the thicket of the
DHS grant-making process. As the disaster simulation known as “Dark
Winter” proved, for example, a smallpox attack on the United States
could cause massive confusion and death across the country, a scenario
that only can be handled with clear lines of authority and
communication between the state governments and Washington. Such lines
do not exist now, nor did they during Dark Winter. In fact, during the
exercise, jurisdictional conflict quickly broke out, leading former
Senator Sam Nunn, who played the President of the United States, to
say, “We’re going to have absolute chaos if we start having war between
the federal government and the state government.”

Hurricane Katrina: The Canary in the Coalmine

An independent and empowered FEMA would go a long way toward better
preparing the United States for disaster response. But such a move
alone would prepare the federal government to respond merely to the
threat landscape of the past, not the unsettling and turbulent one of
the future: global warming and international terrorism.

Former Vice President Gore’s recent book An Inconvenient Truth
makes the case, known to scientists for some time, that global warming
has contributed to an increase in both the number and intensity of
extreme weather events. A growing raft of studies indicates that warmer
ocean waters fuel more powerful hurricanes, containing more moisture
and more wind. In 2004, Florida experienced four unusually powerful
hurricanes; Japan set an all-time record for the number of typhoons;
and in the United States the record for tornadoes was broken. In 2005,
so many hurricanes hit the United States that we ran out of letters of
the alphabet and had to start using Greek letters as hurricane
designations, a step never before reached. In addition, as Gore points
out, “The science textbooks had to be rewritten in 2004. They used to
say, ‘It’s impossible to have hurricanes in the South Atlantic.’ But
that year, for the first time ever, a hurricane hit Brazil.”

Hurricanes are not the only cataclysm on the rise. The number of
major floods in the United States increased from less than 25 in the
1950s to just under 200 in the 1990s, a rate of change that was
mirrored in Asia and in Europe. As Gore goes on to point out, one of
the ironies of more flooding, and more precipitation in general, is
that the phenomenon is uneven across the globe–producing more drought
and desertification at the same time. The number of square miles of
desert created in the 1990s is more than double what it was in the
1970s. And the number of major wildfires in the Americas went from less
than 10 in the 1950s to close to 50 in the 1990s. Thus, Hurricane
Katrina may well have been the canary in the coalmine, alerting us to
the fact that “once-in-a-century storms” will occur much more
frequently than that. The emerging scientific consensus is that global
warming equals extreme weather, and national wealth and power are no
protection against Mother Nature. That images from the aftermath of
Katrina looked eerily similar to the pictures from the Asian tsunami a
year earlier was no accident. We in the United States are as vulnerable
to extreme weather events as anyone else in the world.

A similar situation exists regarding large-scale terrorism. As the
terrorism expert Brian Jenkins points out, the nature of terrorism
changed in the late twentieth century, from terrorism directed at
precise political objectives to terrorism driven by fanatical religious
objectives directed at societies in general. Even before September 11,
we were seeing an increase in the number of lives taken in terrorist
attacks. And, as nuclear proliferation expert Graham Allison has
written so persuasively, the decreasing cost of scientific and
computing information has meant that it is not only inconceivable, but,
in fact, quite possible, that sometime in the next decade a major city
will be attacked with a small-scale nuclear device. All the trappings
of modern life–bridges, tunnels, airplanes, computer networks,
electricity grids, and power plants–have been, and will continue to be,
targets of terrorists intent upon inflicting maximum damage to civilian

Redesigning Emergency Response

Global warming and terrorist attacks have drastically different
implications when it comes to prevention, but for purposes of emergency
response the two issues are nearly identical (the only real difference
is that, in addition to emergency response, the scene of a terrorist
attack is also treated like a crime scene). The levees in New Orleans
could have been blown up by terrorists instead of being destroyed by
Hurricane Katrina. An explosion and meltdown in a nuclear power plant
can come about as the result of carelessness on the part of an employee
as easily as it can come about from intentional terrorist activity.
Whatever the cause of the disaster, people need to be rescued and
treated, fires and other second-stage disasters need to be fought, and
property needs to be rebuilt.

Moving forward, therefore, the federal government must establish a
set of guiding principles for responding to large-scale disasters, be
they natural or man-made. The first is that a determination must be
made, as early as possible, whether first responders have been
overwhelmed and have become, in fact, victims themselves. This goes
against established doctrine, embodied by the Stafford Act, which
dictates that response efforts should start with local and state
resources. It is the Stafford Act that sets up the process whereby a
governor formally asks the federal government for assistance in the
case of a catastrophe. But, as we saw with Katrina, it is possible to
experience disasters of such a scale that they decimate even the local
government’s ability to communicate merely the extent of the damage,
let alone initiate a response. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had to
operate out of the Hyatt Hotel for several days, unable to establish
communications with anyone; many state and local public safety agencies
suffered water and wind damage to their equipment (evacuation buses,
for one, were underwater); and the breakdown of communications led to
an inability to coordinate state and local responses. In other words,
in Katrina, from the Mayor of New Orleans on down, the first responders
were victims.

Interestingly enough, the Bush Administration, in its National
Response Plan, had, in fact, anticipated that there would be events in
which first responders were incapacitated and immediate federal
intervention would be necessary. A presidential directive issued eight
months before Katrina allowed the secretary of homeland security to
declare a disaster to be an Incident of National Significance,
essentially a federal takeover of the response effort, drawing
resources from across the federal government. But this step wasn’t
taken by Secretary Michael Chertoff until days after the hurricane hit,
thus delaying to a dangerous degree the mobilization of federal,
especially military, resources. The sad truth is that, had New Orleans’
leadership been incapacitated by a dirty bomb, the federal response
would have been more quickly forthcoming. Such a disparity between the
federal response to natural and terrorist-made disasters must be
reconciled. In the future, the federal government will need to make an
immediate determination about the fitness of first responders and
direct a federal, often military, response within hours–not days.

Another requirement for disaster strategy is the need for a standing
emergency-response budget. Over time, America’s natural disasters have
become steadily less deadly–but also steadily more expensive. The
hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas, in 1900 resulted in 8,000 dead,
but the property damage (under $10 billion) was minimal by today’s
standards. In contrast, Hurricane Katrina, the deadliest disaster in
recent American history, killed 1,330, but the property damage cost the
government nearly $100 billion, by far the most expensive natural
disaster in American history. Similarly, the September 11 attacks on
New York and Washington cost the nation $64 billion, above and beyond
what had been budgeted for homeland defense as of the summer of 2002
(this number reflects only the emergency spending; it does not take
into account the increases in regular spending that have come as a
result of those attacks). In the context of a federal budget that is
expected to total $2.7 trillion in 2006, these emergency expenditures
are small. But if major disasters are increasingly a way of life in
this country, then such numbers take on an added significance. They
are, in effect, less and less contingent costs; increasingly, they are
fixed, mandatory costs–in other words, entitlements. Thus, one way to
understand how to budget for disasters is to look at the history of the
federal government’s budgets for entitlements.

With each decade of the twentieth century, as entitlements grew, the
“rest” of the government made up a smaller and smaller portion of the
whole. This was not supposed to be. But the sympathies elicited by the
beneficiaries–aged people on Medicare and Social Security–made it
impossible to cap expenditures; so as people lived longer lives and
began to rely more on federal benefits, the size of federal
entitlements rose accordingly. In 1937, when Social Security was
passed, no one thought that it would turn out to be the enormous
expenditure that it has become. In that year, there were 53,236
beneficiaries, and their benefits cost the federal government just over
$1 million. In 1941, Social Security outlays were less than 1 percent
of the federal budget; today the old age program alone accounts for 22
percent (all entitlements combined for 55 percent). The universal
nature of the program and the pure political fact that Congress can’t
say no to old people has created a program that overwhelms all other

A similar situation is likely to play out regarding emergency
expenditures. Like Social Security, spending on emergency relief is
directed toward people who are in extreme need and who command the
sympathy and support of Americans and their political leaders. Just as
all Americans realize that they, too, will be old someday, every
American realizes that he or she could wind up in the middle of some
natural or man-made disaster. So, as with Social Security, there is a
political imperative to spend whatever is needed in the wake of
disasters. As Witt told a Senate subcommittee a decade ago, “Disasters
are very political events.” But, unlike entitlement spending, which can
be predicted with a fair degree of accuracy using demographic data,
emergency spending is assumed to be unpredictable. This is why we have
gotten into the habit of appropriating emergency-response money in what
are called “supplemental appropriations”–spending bills that come up
outside the regular budget process. Outside of supplementals for
military action, almost all such appropriations are for emergency

Indeed, the amount of money spent on disaster supplementals has been
rising. In the 1990s, non-defense supplemental spending came to $22
billion and covered a variety of natural disasters, such as Hurricanes
Hugo, Andrew, and Iniki; the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes;
and the Chicago floods; as well as two man-made emergencies, the
Oklahoma City bombing and the Los Angeles riots. Such spending was a
significant increase over the 1980s, but it pales in comparison to what
has been spent in the first half of the first decade of the
twenty-first century. Driven mostly by one man-made disaster (September
11) and one natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina), supplemental
authority for non-defense spending from 2000 to 2005 is already more
than $167 billion, or more than seven times as high as it was for the
entire previous decade. The emergency supplementals for the September
11 disaster roughly equaled all spending by the Department of Education
for 2004, and emergency supplementals for Hurricane Katrina were
slightly higher than all spending by the Department of Agriculture in
2006. At this rate of growth, emergency-response spending will quickly
devour what remains of the discretionary budget and dwarf
appropriations for health, education, criminal justice, and a host of
other programs.

Attempts by conscientious members of Congress to actually put aside
money for disasters have failed time and time again. And, for obvious
good human reasons, the political will to place limits on aid to
victims of disasters or to mitigate further disasters simply doesn’t
exist. The simple solution to this budgeting crisis is to appropriate,
each and every year, money that would go into a kind of rainy day fund,
protected from government spending and allowed to grow in years when
there are no major emergencies. But the failure of calls for a similar
protected fund–the once-maligned, now-pined-for Social Security “lock
box”–does not offer much hope that this could actually be accomplished
in the present political climate.

When the bill for natural disasters exacts a pound of flesh from the
federal budget, the pound of cure promised by prevention looks ever
more appealing. The most obvious solutions to the impending fiscal
crisis are to take sensible, less costly steps to prevent disasters in
the first place. Of course, such steps are often impossible in the
absence of political courage and will. For instance, in the case of
hurricanes, wetlands act as natural sponges, absorbing some of the
shock of the ocean before it hits dry land. The New Orleans levees were
built on the assumption that they would have 40 or 50 miles of
protective swamp between the city and the Gulf of Mexico. But
successive administrations at all levels of government have allowed for
development on wetlands. Today, the Gulf of Mexico is 20 miles closer
to land than it was in 1965, which makes hurricanes consequently more
destructive. Thus one step in trying to reduce the destructiveness of
natural disasters would be to protect wetlands, in contrast to the Bush
Administration’s policy of allowing development in these previously
protected ecosystems.

The lack of political will to take such common-sense steps of
mitigation will come back to haunt the federal taxpayer. The private
insurance industry is not nearly as skeptical about global warming as
is the Bush Administration. “The big European insurers and
re-insurers–Lloyd’s, Munich Re, Swiss Re and Allianz, for example–are
vocal in calling for the industry to take the climate change threat
seriously,” says an article in Reactions, the magazine of the
re-insurance industry. Since the private market is not subject to
political pressures, it will not insure much of what used to be New
Orleans. So it is left up to the National Flood Insurance Program,
which, instead of living up to its promise to reduce flood damage, is
knowingly using old maps that significantly underestimate the danger
from flooding. The cost of this short-sighted political gamesmanship
will be endured by all taxpayers.

Just as steps should be taken to “harden” potential targets of
terrorist assault, we need policies that will invest government dollars
and political capital in making environmentally sensitive areas less
susceptible to natural disasters. Wetlands policies should be
strengthened. Federal aid should be provided to move people out of
flood plains, and the people who run the federal flood insurance
program should be forced to take a much tougher look at the risk levels
they are underwriting. And, of course, the most important thing we can
do is to get serious about global warming. Since the United States
contributes more to global warming than any other country, our
leadership alone can make a significant difference in terms of the
effect we can have and the example we can set.

It is tempting, of course, to look at the first five years of this
decade as an aberration, to simply write off September 11 and Hurricane
Katrina as extraordinary events–literally. In fact, Katrina and
September 11 are only the beginning of what is likely to be a decade or
more of enormous spending on disasters and disaster relief. It is easy
to see emergency-response spending topping $200 billion in this decade
and steadily increasing–eating what is left of the discretionary
portion of the federal budget. By refusing to pay attention to the
environment on the one hand and by waging a wasteful and ineffective
war against terrorism on the other, we have all but guaranteed that
emergency-response capabilities will become an ever larger and more
important federal function.

Turning this around means mustering the political will to engage in
serious prevention. This will not be an easy thing to do. It means
telling Americans that they can no longer live in the places where
they’ve lived before and giving them resources to relocate. It means
getting serious about reducing global warming. And it means
understanding that nothing will undermine our government and our way of
life more than lurching from one catastrophe to another. In so many
ways, the costs of Katrina are still being tallied. But if the cost of
successive natural disasters is that of a government that is unable to
act and innovate, it will be a price too large to bear.

Read more about FEMANatural Disasters

Elaine Kamarck is a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program as well as the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution.

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