From April 1, 1979 until March 1, 2003 FEMA was an independent Executive Branch agency reporting directly to the President. The agency had been created by President James Earl Carter in his Reorganization No.3 of 1978. The plan was sent to Congress on May 20, 1978 and not disapproved by Congress which would have halted the reorganization under the then existing reorganization authority vested in the President. That authority required that a resolution of disapproval by either House of Congress would prohibit the reorganization. That single house veto which did not occur in the case of FEMA was ruled UnConstitutional by SCOTUS in the 1983 case of CHADA v. US. Now perhaps more importantly any Presidential reorganization is submitted and both houses of Congress must approve of the Reorganization. This is likely to be the system until there is no longer a US government.
The question raised by the title of this post is not just rhetorical. President Carter himself in checking off the YES block on the form he signed approving the REORG wrote the word "RELUCTANTLY" next to the checkmark. Why is that the case? Carter as a former governor recognized that the one-stop shopping system for disaster relief and other assistance advocated by the NGA and others might easily result in even more pressure for financial assistance to the states, and in particular those who were the least prepared for disasters of all types. And he also recognized that although the plan called for FEMA to be a collaborative and cooperative agency relying on the skills, competencies, and assets of other federal departments and agencies to produce effective EM the existence of a FEMA might well undercut those preparedness and response efforts in other departments and agencies. Also Senator William Proximire in hearings on the reorganization fretted that "free" disaster relief might be so attractive as to undercut efforts to accomplish other identified EM tasks assigned to the agency, such as mitigation.
Now of course we have the persepective of the history of FEMA before its incorporation into DHS. While mother nature does NOT grant variances and the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in May 1980 resulted in stressing the new FEMA under President Carter, almost the entirety of the REAGAN presidential term of office was remarkably free of major natural catastrophe. Then, of course came Hurricane Hugo and the Loma Prieta earthquakes of late 1989 in the firts year of the Presidency of George H.W. Bush, followed at the end of his administration in August 1992 Hurricane Andrew. The Clinton-Witt FEMA had several severe disasters but nothing as catastrophic as the later Hurricane Katrina. But the escalation of grants to the states trended even without those major events upwards over time until FEMA's incorporation into DHS. There is no question that such escalation undermined mitigation and preparedness at the STATE level and perhaps the local level. But this is the backdrop not the entirety of the history. FEMA also had other important assignments often confused by the lack of skills of those in FEMA involved in the intra-agency and inter-agency policy development process. It can certainly be concluded that FEMA was NOT really part of the policy process from 1979 until 2003 and could not be by design and its staffing considering both appointees and civil servants. There were of course rare exceptions, but almost by luck not design.
What do I use to document to the answer to the question asked in the title to this post?
First, the lack or communication skills with some exceptions of the FEMA Directors and willingness to address others in various administrations and the Congress with needed policy input and rationale for FEMA. Second, the dominance of a largely unqualified Reorg Project Staff that assumed leadership positions in FEMA without being fully qualified to lead the new agency and provide expertise in the world of EM. They were all guilty of being that dreaded beast known as "bureucratic entrepreneurs" and were largely willing to rest on their slim laurels once escounced in high ranking FEMA positions. Third, was the huge influx of former DOD civil defense types into the senior ranks of FEMA appointees. This had an extremely adverse impact for several reasons. First the culture they imported and second their very seniority. Also they had come from a largely failed mission and agency the federal civil defense program. Again of course there were exceptions to this labeling and very important ones.
Fourth, was the cultural impact of former OEP [Office of Emergency Preparedness] staff that had once and still missed being able to say they were part of the WHITE HOUSE before OEP was broken up by President Nixon in Reorganizaton Plan No.1 of 1973, which distribution of elements to HUD, GSA, and elsewhere.
Probably one of the most criticized and unsung long term heroes of FEMA's days as an independent agency was Kay Goss, originally hoping to be the US Fire Administrator, losing out on the job because she had not held a fire hose, and becoming the Associate Director for Preparedness, Training, and Exercises. Her long term vision for her directorate and FEMA has been sustained while others failed miserably. The fact that almost 200 colleges and univeristies have EM curricula is certainly her key accomplishment and her missionary work in this area and school safety have yielded a great benefit to EM and the country. There are others who will be documented from time to time. Including civil servants such as Wayne Blanchard at EMI who has not only helped implement Kay's vision but expanded on it. This is not to say that the academic community did not have other friends in FEMA, including oddly that highly intellectual but troubled FEMA Director Louis O. Guiffrida. His disasterous era should not be wholly attributed to his shortcomings because there were some successes in developing EM as a discipline and worthy profession but his mentor, Ed MEESE, first Counselor to the President and then AG was a slim scaffold on which to build a then new FEMA. Meese himself oddly has in many ways burnished his reputation by his activites post government showing that Guiffrida's trust in him was not totally displaced.
All this adds up to the need for more posts on this history and will try to do so from time to time. The real problem is that Washington and its culture is brutal in many ways and often weighs the failures of its denizens, sometimes correctly, more than their lasting successes. Perhaps Charles Dickens summed it up in a tale of Two Cities--It was the best of times and the worst of times. There are some excellent academic articles on the independent FEMA and its successes and failures. And some,like Patrick Roberts in his reputational analysis appropriately credit James Lee Witt with a revival of a devastated FEMA post Hurricane Andrew. There is now substantial evidence that Director Wallace B. Stinckney requested his President NOT to name him as the lead for Hurricane Andrew, thus leading to appointment of Andrew Card as the "Master of Disaster" somewhat to his dismay. Stickney at least knew what was beyond him. The day has long past when high level appointments or even civil service jobs are easy sinecures. Both parties need to do more to have long lists of qualified individuals ready and willing to serve. Imagine if a mass catastrophe event were to wipe out major portions of the government. Hoping this era of the independent FEMA gets even more attention by academics and historians because it contains much of current interest, even as Representative Oberstar pushes again for an independent FEMA in the 111th Congress.
supplementing the analysis above will be how a FEMA run by generalists failed to comprehend when they were handed a complex task involving science, engineering, or the need to integrate the many disciplines that have something to add to EM. This will be the subject of later posts.
This is a gross oversimplication of the FEMA mission but I always thought its job was to help prevent disasters not encourage them by its policies, or lack thereof. It is this issue that still compromises the effectiveness and efficiency of FEMA because the two roles of relief and prevention and/or preparedness/mitigation are to some extent in contradiction, at least as administered by FEMA. Another example would be the hostility of FEMA appointees and personnel to R&D and statistical information and metrics that reflect end goals not just business between bureacracies.