First, thanks again to everyone for the feedback on last week’s Demystifying Disasters
post. It’s incredibly helpful for me to know what about it was useful or not, who you shared it with, and any questions you have for future newsletters, so if you have thoughts on any of that, please respond to this email!
About a year ago, I wrote a deep dive
into whether the confluence of crises that occurred in 2020 would be a tipping point for changing the US disaster system. I published the opening section in a newsletter
at the time, which tells the story of one Louisiana family in the aftermath of Hurricane Laura (as a reminder, I migrated my content from one newsletter provider to another, so please excuse any weird formatting in older editions).
Today, I want to share another portion, which traces back to the beginnings of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). It’s sort of like a Marvel origin story, only with a lot more bureaucracy—and yes, the quote in the subject line of this newsletter is a part of it.
Building on last week’s look at what emergency managers do on the local and state levels, this provides more context behind why FEMA was originally created, some of the longstanding tensions around federal disaster response, and the milestones that created the agency we have today. It feels particularly timely to share, as FEMA just released a four-year plan
, outlining the agency’s goals and approach moving forward.
If you’re interested in learning more about that, let me know, and I’ll revisit it in a future edition! But now, let’s take a look back.
Days before the first hurricane of the 2020 season reached the U.S., FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor testified in front of the House Homeland Security Committee. He wore a disposable blue medical mask, which he took off to make his statements and answer questions.
“I don’t think FEMA has been more ready than we are today,” he told the members of Congress in July.
They weren’t all convinced.
The agency, typically known for its response to disaster events like hurricanes, has been directing what Gaynor calls the “whole of government response” to COVID-19 since March. That’s included securing and distributing medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as responding to major disaster declarations nationwide.
“Let me be clear, FEMA employees have worked incredibly hard,” Representative Lauren Underwood said to Gaynor. “But the truth is that FEMA was not designed for this type of crisis.”
“FEMA is designed exactly for this, which is interagency coordination,” Gaynor countered. This debate over the federal government’s role and responsibility in disaster response predates the agency itself.
FEMA traces its own roots to the Congressional Act of 1803, “the first piece of disaster legislation,” which was passed following a particularly damaging fire in New Hampshire. It was a notable departure from the then-broadly accepted thinking that disasters were outside the purview of the federal government. Still, that standard largely sustained for decades.
“I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit,” President Grover Cleveland said more than 80 years later when vetoing a drought relief bill in 1887.
Two years after Cleveland’s veto, a tsunami-like flood hit Johnstown, Pennsylvania. In 1900, an unnamed hurricane killed thousands in Galveston, Texas. Six years after that, hundreds of thousands were left homeless in San Francisco after an earthquake and subsequent days of fires.
Despite the large, far-reaching impacts of these historic tragedies, the federal government’s stance on disaster did not shift. Instead, the sort of reactionary legislation established in 1803 – “piecemeal” legislation, as FEMA calls it – continued.
Until, as Herbert Hoover discovered, it proved politically beneficial to do otherwise.
After the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 inundated a swath of southern states, President Calvin Coolidge put together a “quasi-governmental commission.” It brought together the vice chairman of the American Red Cross and cabinet members, including Hoover, who found popularity leading the efforts in flood control reform. In The Big Ones, Dr. Lucy Jones’ book on how disasters have shaped societies, she notes that Hoover’s influence in creating the 1928 Flood Control Act put him in the national spotlight, boosting his image ahead of the presidential election.
The federal government went on to develop more than 100 disaster response programs in subsequent decades. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed an executive order to consolidate these into one independent agency. This new body, FEMA, has the self-described role of “lead America to prepare for, prevent, respond to and recover from disasters.”
In its early years, though, FEMA had little credibility. The agency was largely staffed by political appointees, rather than experts with emergency management credentials. Its slow response to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 led Senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings to call FEMA “the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I’ve ever known.” After the Loma Prieta Earthquake that same year, Representative Norman Y. Mineta said FEMA “could screw up a two-car parade.”
It wasn’t until President Bill Clinton appointed James Lee Witt in 1993 to head up the agency that it had its first administrator with emergency management experience. Under Witt’s leadership, FEMA focused on “all-hazards” preparedness, and within months, Representative Mineta claimed to see a “real improvement” in the agency’s disaster response.
This newfound credibility was challenged in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Some criticized that “all-hazards” approach for not having invested enough in terrorism preparedness. Soon after, the agency lost its independent status, one of 22 federal agencies folded into the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Similar to the original structuring of FEMA, this body was formed in hopes of streamlining the government’s preparedness and response programs.
However, in the early years following the move, FEMA saw reduced resources and a so-called “brain drain,” or exodus of experienced employees. In 2004, former Administrator Witt warned Congress that FEMA was “being buried beneath a massive bureaucracy whose main and seemingly only focus is fighting terrorism while an all-hazards mission is getting lost in the shuffle.”
By the time Hurricane Katrina came ashore the following year, the agency was understaffed and underprepared. Once again, it failed to mount the response necessary, and the city of New Orleans paid a devastating price. Representative Nancy Pelosi called it the “Federal Emergency Mis-Management Agency” and called for its administrator at the time, Michael Brown, to resign, which he did days later. Inquiries were launched; changes were recommended. Ultimately, with the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, the agency was reorganized internally once again, though it remained a part of the DHS.
FEMA’s abject failure with Katrina made it a household name, synonymous with both disaster response and the perils of bureaucracy. It’s a label that’s largely stuck in the fifteen years since, despite the agency’s attempts to emphasize its role as part of a coordinated system. Disaster response is “locally executed, state managed, federally supported,” Gaynor testified in front of Congress in July. He referenced the agency’s updated operational guidance documents, stressing his confidence in his department’s ability to address cumulative disasters…
For more, you can find the full article (with a $2 paywall) on Fenix