Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why Disaster Housing Isn't in HUD!

Well just noting that the long-term disaster HOUSING strategy mandated in PKEMA 2006 and released in February 2010 by FEMA/DHS in draft not yet final. Hey soon will be four years since that statutory mandate put in place. Perhaps a partial explanation here.
First in the formation of FEMA there were three not two components in HUD transferred to FEMA. Of course there were the FIA [Federal Insurance Administration], implementing Executive Order 12127. FDAA (Federal Disaster Assistance Administration] implementing Executive Order 12148. But in HUD there had also been a separate Disaster Temporary Housing Unit.During the runup to the implementation of President's Reorganization Plan No. 3 of 1978, creating FEMA, and implemented by the two Executive Orders above, FIA administered under Gloria Jimenez, an Italian-American Hispanic by marriage, and FDAA administered by William Wilcox. The third administrative unit in HUD, the Disaster Temporary Housing Program was administered by John Gibson, an agile and exceptionally competent long-term civil servant. But even the most skilled civil servants have a difficult time negotiating the reefs of a Presidential reorganization.
Throughout the Carter Administration HUD was led by Patricia Roberts Harris, a very smart, well-connected politically astute, more white than black Washington lawyer. Charming and beautiful and well attuned to white politically correct thinking Patricia Roberts Harris seemed a good choice for HUD except that her lawyering never included housing and community development issues and certainly she had no specific knowledge of disaster relief or insurance. Still the Disaster Temporary Housing Program and its becoming part of FEMA was in fact to be the real test of her clout with President Carter. It in fact became the litmus test of that clout. She told President Carter in no uncertain terms that she was not going to support his efforts to reorganize emergency management if that reorganization did not take disaster temporary housing out of HUD. Why one may ask when it fits so neatly into HUD's portfolio or seeming portfolio?

To understand where Secretary Harris was coming from you first have to understand that HUD does not operate to fulfill its statutory charter of providing decent, safe, sanitary housing to the American public. It in fact is nothing but a strategic cover for the middlemen and women of the FIRE sector and at some point HUD will be the focus of the meltdown in the Housing structure and financing of that housing in the US during 2008 and long before. That is not my story here however.

To some degree Pat Harris despite efforts to polish her civil rights credentials and activism, and she definitely had some of those that were legitimate, she was a limousine liberal. Sent by the President to W.VA one of several states that survives on federal disaster relief, thanks in part to deceased Senator Robert Byrd, Ms. Harris was sent to find out why there were so many problems with diaster housing n W.VA. Well the W. VA. housing stock is not really the greatest at anytime but post-disaster placement of mobile homes (now since 1974 and HUD regulation-manufactured Homes and unregulated RV trailers) in the geography of the hills and dales of W.VA. was never an easy task at any time. FDAA hired the USACOE to find and create mobile home sites post disaster with both water and sewer availabiity. What a really tough job. Try Pakistan today and you get the picture. Anyhow, Ms.Harris visited W.VA in her offical transportation vehicle which got stuck the mud and her with it. Totally exasperated personally and professionally by what she witnessed she blamed John Gibson for what Mother Nature had wrought. Of course, you know what does run downhill.
John Gibson stayed on however through the reorganization and retired shortly after FEMA was created when he reached the realization that John Macy was largely incompetent politically, administratively, and not a well man. Besides even in FEMA the disaster temporary housing mission was a stepchild with FEMA always wanting to sell all the trailers and not stockpile them. The fact that the program was filled with personnel that totally disliked HUD and the HUD approach to housing was only a small factor. Actually some really really capable FEMA employees came out of John Gibson's tutelage.

HUD also had quite a bit of flexibility in Housing efforts post-disaster including a Secretary's discretionary fund, which oddly Pat Harris fought to retain and then had it abolished by statute. It has since been recreated to some degree. In any event HUD used the excuse of FEMA's formation and the disaster temporary housing program transfer to justify a Pontius Pilate approach to disaster issues. Some loyal civil servants after her departure did wonderful work making HUD somewhat of a partner in disaster response. You might if interested not the HUD assigments in E.O. 12656 now under active review for revision or revocation for the second time since its issuance in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan.

FEMA as stated always viewed the disaster temporary housing mission with a jaundiced eye. One example, when I challenged a high-level in a pre-landfalling hurricane briefing as to FEMA's readiness for large scale disaster housing issues, I was dismissed as to that being a concern because FEMA had access to 2400 stockpiled trailers. Of course that is when I announced that FEMA's policy should be able to accomodate 500K homeless as a starting point for disaster housing. Hey of course there were chuckles at this Jerimiad. In additon FDAA generally had been feared as having separate WHITE HOUSE connections and channels including some better thatn Secretary Harris' own. Always the creator of fear in a political appointee is that someone beneath her had more clout, a phenomenon repeated a number of times in FEMA's history. Also over the early years when FEMA's diaster ops were not severely tested by large-scale catastrophic events really an amazingly quiet period from Mt.St. Helens to Hurrican Hugo and the LOMA PRIETA earthquake, the knowledge of HUS and its capabilities diminished rapidly in FEMA.

Now my understanding is that the statutory mandate which included both HUD and FEMA/DHS to develop the first ever disaster temporary housing strategy seems to have at least enforced to both Executive Branch components the need to talk to each other. An as always of course I am hoping for the best even while realizing that decent, safe, sanitary housing is probably no longer even a dream in the US even before the disaster! Oh! DID I mention that HUD is under the jurisdiction of the BANKING committees in Congress? We all know how invested in the public interest the members of those Committees and their staffs are by virtue of campaign donations.