FEMA needs to refocus

Ten years ago this month, a sweeping bipartisan consensus helped create the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Today, the nation is unarguably better prepared for a terrorist attack than it was on Sept. 10, 2011. 

However, preparing for a terrorist attack doesn’t help prepare for a natural disaster. The United States now needs an aggressive effort against the threat of natural disasters similar to the one it mounted against terrorism. This means reform at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). 

After Sept. 11, everything changed at FEMA. The government was under pressure to do something — anything, really — to prepare for terrorism. Congress and the president created the mammoth 180,000-employee DHS, which swallowed the relatively small 3,000-employee FEMA and 21 other agencies, from the Coast Guard to the Customs Service. The new department divided FEMA’s attention between its core work of natural-disaster response, and the new counter-terrorism mission. Little time and few resources were left over to deal with the agency’s other critical mandate from Congress — natural-hazards mitigation — using risk assessment and protective infrastructure to reduce the damage caused by inevitable floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and other disasters. 

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina became the first real test of whether or not preparing for a terrorist attack helped to stave off the effects of a natural disaster. The results were a textbook case of bureaucratic dysfunction and failure of leadership in crisis. Experts who have analyzed the Katrina failure point to the diversion of FEMA’s resources away from mitigation and disaster response and toward counterterrorism as a major contributor to the debacle.

While it is true that emergency management methods are billed as applicable to “all hazards” (including terrorism), the reality is that the work involved in counterterrorism is quite different from the work required to prepare for natural and technological hazards. Counterterrorism requires intelligence gathering, secrecy and interdiction. Preparing for natural and technological disasters requires open communication, decentralization, community buy-ins and a method of organization known as incident command, which was first developed to fight forest fires. 

FEMA today should be grappling with the reality unfolding before us. Sea level rise and increased development in risky areas portend greater disaster losses. Last year saw the greatest number of billion-dollar disasters — 14 — of any year in American history, and 2012 is shaping up to be among the costliest on record, with estimates from Superstorm Sandy at more than 100 dead and $50 billion lost. 

Natural disasters aren’t preventable, but we know a great deal about making them less damaging. A recent study by the Multihazard Mitigation Council shows that each dollar spent on hazards mitigation saves an average of $4. 

The question now is: What’s the best way for FEMA to focus on reducing natural-disaster losses? Here are two possible courses of action:

Give FEMA greater independence within DHS. This means realistic budgets and a mission to lead the nation towards sustainable resilience against natural hazards. FEMA should map and implement a national risk assessment in close coordination with agencies across the government. For the floods, storms and earthquakes that happen every year, FEMA needs to be more than the figurative ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. It must be a fence at the top preventing disaster and reducing risk. The agency would continue to serve as the coordinator of federal disaster relief, while serving in a support role to other agencies responding to major terrorist attacks.

Create a new Department of Mitigation and Emergency Management. This Cabinet-level department would combine the federal agencies that are working to mitigate against and respond to natural and technological hazards. These agencies include the U.S. Geological Survey, building and fire research at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), home of the trusted National Weather Service. There should nothing sacred about the present location of these agencies: NOAA, for example, wound up in the Commerce Department only because former President Richard Nixon didn’t want to reward his Interior secretary with a new agency after he criticized the effort in Vietnam. 

Bringing disaster experts across the federal bureaucracy together in one department enables the science of disaster to inform policies that could safeguard the nation.

It’s time to admit that disaster management under DHS has too often been disastrous. Give FEMA a present on this 10th anniversary and let it actually reduce the hazards we face.

Knowles is an associate professor of history at Drexel University. Roberts is an associate professor at the Center for Public Administration and Policy at Virginia Tech.