Thursday, July 29, 2010

Profiles-The Independent FEMA Directors-Wallace E. Stickney

Wallace E. Stickney was the first and only FEMA Director to have been a long service civil servant for the US government. As a Professional Engineer, the only FEMA Director with that background he had risen to a GS-14 position in the Boston Regional Office of EPA. Like many his official residence was actually New Hampshire with its lower taxes. His neighbor in New Hampshire, Governor John Sunnunu became the White House Chief of Staff under George H.W. Bush. Stickney had become Secretary of Transportation in the state under Governor Sunnunu. One "accomplishment" was to authorize ABC stores to be built on New Hampshire Interstates. Much interstate traffic goes to Maine through New Hampshire with its low taxes and "Live Free or Die" motto.

George H.W. Bush was sworn in as President on January 20, 1989 having served 8 full years as Ronald Reagan's VP. Stickney did not get sworn in as FEMA Director until August 1990 and arrived to find that Jerry D.Jennings had been Acting Director since May 1990 having come from the Selective Service Administration. He also arrived to find Anthony Lopez, as Associate Director for National Preparedness, and Grant Peterson as Associate Director for the State and Local Programs Support Directorate. He also arrived to find the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station licensing hearings still underway being held in Manchester, New Hampshire. He also arrived just after Saddem Hussein had invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990 and it was unclear what the US response, if any would be.

First, like all the other FEMA Directors, Stickney enjoyed the job. His first public utterance to the staff was that he would "never" call the WH Chief of Staff to bother him with a FEMA issue or request. That probably indicated the actual political sophistication of Stickney but not in a positive way. Inability to communicate with the WH had led to the downfall or ineffectiveness of FEMA leadership in the past as evident by these posts. The first and only Doctorate received by a FEMA employee, writing about FEMA issues was received from Virginia Tech by Dr. Melissa Howard, PhD in pubic administration. Her these concluded proximity to the WH was the lodestar for FEMA Directors. Professor Richard Sylves of the University of Delaware and myself wrote a published article "FEMA's Road to Homeland Security" that reached the conclusion that FEMA was much more of a Presidentially driven organization than Congressional. In fact in my 20 years with some exceptional incidents, FEMA despite reporting to 88 Committees and subcommittees did not receive much oversight and certainly much effective oversight. Even GAO and FEMA/OIG largely ignored the broader issues that might have led to a more effective and efficient FEMA. Stickney also arrived to find that the fall-out from the Loma Prieta Earthquake and Hurricane Hugo from fall 1989 were still reverberating around the Executive Branch and Congress. FEMA had been "led" during those events by Acting Director Robert Morris, who had been in charge since late June 1989 after the departure of Director Becton. Morris had also led FEMA from July 1985 to November 1989 when Julius Becton was sworn in as Director, FEMA.

In the fall months Stickney occupied his time learning the systems and processes of FEMA. By the time it appeared that the US would be entering into a military effort to dispossess Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, Stickney had been made fully aware of the rivalries and tensions within FEMA. One initiative of Director Becton followed by a series of table tops in the fall of 1990 led Director Stickney to issue his most important decision in the form of a memorandum to all employees on January 24, 1991, subject "FEMA's Emergency Response Readiness"! This memo resolved the question of what plan in FEMA was the all-hazards plan and to be followed for any incident/event requiring FEMA's consequence management. Unfortunately, the plan was issued completely only in May 1992 and in late August 1992 Hurricane Andrew made landfall. An historic hurricane by any standards, it was a clearly documented Category 5 and delivered that categories expected devastation. In fact a degree north in Florida, and a degree west in Louisiana and Miami would have been devastated and NOLA probably would not have been around for the fated encounter with Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Federal Response Plan and its history has been discussed elsewhere on this blog, but its adoption in May 1992 was a milestone. What did not happen is that its full implementation by training and development of SOP's and other systems had almost no time to occur before the arrival of Hurricane Andrew. It has now been revealed that Stickney, himself, declined to be the master of disaster in ANDREW with historic consequences for FEMA when the Secretary of Transportation was assigned the Senior Federal Official role in Florida and he of course became the Chief of Staff through the first term of the George W. Bush Administration. Card was not endeared with this assignment to him and of interest when he departed the George H.W. Bush Administration received credit as the "master of disaster" by the outgoing President.

In general the Stickney years were marked by few substantive initiatives except that the Becton effort to define FEMA's response role was continued. Unfortunately, the tension over how operational FEMA was to be was not resolved nor has it yet been. Is FEMA the safety net for other Executive Branch organizations that cannot do their assigned crisis management tasks? See my post on FEMA-To Be or Not To BE!
One final insight was his attempt to make sure that he was in fact allowed to continue as Director under President William Jefferson Clinton. That did not happen and all Republican appointees were swept out of office. But I find it interesting that he liked the job enough to try and retain it as long as he could. ruu