President Bush insists that now is not the time for finger-pointing and blame, but it certainly is — and most of the finger-pointing and blame for the slow-motion federal response to Hurricane Katrina is being directed at Michael Brown, the hapless head of FEMA whose only apparent qualification for the job was a wise choice of college roommate.
Editorialized an outraged New Orleans Times-Picayune, "Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially."
Even as the vast federal relief apparatus now appears to be finally in gear, Congress and the White House are planning separate investigations into why the initial response was so slow and fragmented. Brown, the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans will come in for harsh scrutiny, but investigators should step back and look at a broader issue:
Maybe in part this was a failure of government structure. Maybe FEMA should not be — and should never have been — part of the Department of Homeland Security, best known for making Americans remove their shoes and surrender their nail scissors.
FEMA was created in 1979, the successor to agencies whose primary mission was civil defense, principally preparing for a nuclear attack. With the end of the Cold War, FEMA focused on natural disasters. Under the Clinton administration, FEMA was an independent agency with broad powers in emergencies; its head, a seasoned professional, had Cabinet status; and it won praise for its reaction to floods, hurricanes and the Oklahoma City bombing. It was not an agency that needed fixing.
But, in 2002, FEMA and 21 other agencies were thrown into the new Department of Homeland Security. Disaster relief is not a top priority or even close to one for DHS; counterterrorism is. In a Web site updated as recently as Sept. 3, the White House reiterated that DHS is "a single agency dedicated to protecting Americans from terrorism." The Web site goes on about countering terrorism and not at all about disaster relief.
FEMA began dropping down the organizational depth charts. A reorganization plan announced this summer would have made it subservient to yet another layer of bureaucracy. The Financial Times reports that FEMA's budget has been cut each year it has been part of DHS, and that it has been reduced by 500 positions in that time.
Taking Michael Brown out of the equation for a moment, Congress should consider this chilling possibility: Maybe with its reduced status, smaller staff, increased departmental red tape and bureaucratic hurdles, FEMA did the best it could. It wasn't good enough and may never be as long as it's part of Homeland Security.