Smart money inside the beltway has always looked askance at the top disaster job in the federal government. Why? The risk is all downside as they are finding out in New Zealand and all my sympathy goes out to all the families suffering losses in that terrible second earthquake.
The second rule of thumb has been to keep disaster operations as far away as possible from the President so that he/she cannot be blamed whatever the circumstances and especially when expectations of the public are not met.
After Hurrican Hugo and the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, Congress after labeling FEMA as the last refuge of political hacks and pointy headed bureacrats actually did get around to facing some of the tough questions still unresolved in disaster policy as of the writing of this blog post. Specifically is FEMA the 911 of the Federal Government. The answer then and the answer now is NO. FEMA is largely designed as a cooperative and collaborative organization not a highly reliable organization [that is current political science and public administration lingo] and is definitely not designed to either be first to the scene of the accident [crisis] or to be the safety net when other federal agencies [OFAs] fail to do their assigned missions, either directly by the President or by FEMA as delegate from the President and its mission assignment activities.
Oddly some top tier political appointees in FEMA over the years have argued both that FEMA is the 911 or as close to it as the FEDS should come, or that it is NOT the 911 for the FEDS. So pick the answer you want and all else flows from that choice.
If you look at the FEMA org chart [available on the home page of this blog on the FEMA Historical docs section] you would have to be a seer to figure out what that organization chart reflected about the choice or the failure to choose FEMA as the 911 org or NOT the 911 org. The reason is simple. Just take the Preparedness Directorate for example. Is their a standing order and staff training and capability to utilize this staff directorate to supplement shortfalls in FTE disaster staffing? And can that staff be either fed in easily as replacements or as a unit? No one knows. Disaster ops seem to indicate that whomever is involved at best can operate about 36 hours straight but the problem is when disaster ops enforce that terrible toll of 24/7 staffing needs perhaps for weeks. FEMA is often one person deep in key positions. Okay so perhaps with some rest they could operate with good communications for up to 72 hours but then capability will be falling off in a hurry.So does FEMA have in place a disaster roster allowing 24/7 rosters for all key positions? And what help can FEMA expect from OFA for its replacement needs? I would conclude hopefully incorrectly almost no help can arrive from OFA. And are those OFA equipped and staffed for muliple geographic locations or events? You see the point! Then add that most of FEMA's most faithful consituents are STATES and their local governments, now under the knife in drastic ways staffing and budget wise, and you understand that the real job of FEMA leadership and employees is to be the closest punching bag for the politicians and the people who are impacted by the disaster or crisis. So perhaps the most honest thing FEMA could do is ship to the WH a monthly report verifying that the the assets FEMA has been given don't allow it to be the FEDS 911 or safety net but only a skin of your teeth operation that prays that an accountng like the second earthquake in New Zealand does not occur domestically. Does the WH care about this issue? Well apparently none has so far so what message does that give FEMA appointees and employees even as they might be undergoing a 2/3rds layoff if the CR ever expire. A two week extension now looks like it might be possible. But again the sea anchor of a possible shutdown is turning more and more into a hole below the water line for FEMA and OFA involved in disasters.
Good luck! Mes Amies!