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Hurricane Katrina to Ida: What Has Changed at FEMA?

It has been 16 years since Hurricane Katrina.

How do I spend my days working? Well, there is a bit of thinking, talking and coordinating with people and then writing.

On the writing side of things, this past weekend I cranked out an op-ed that is below about what has changed with FEMA between the two major hurricanes that have impacted Louisiana 16 years apart — almost to the day.

I’ll make one additional comment. I read, listen and watch a lot of news. So far, I have not heard FEMA mentioned, not even once in all the news coverage about Hurricane Ida. Maybe that is a good thing — I don’t know.

Hurricane Katrina to Ida: What Has Changed at FEMA?

It was exactly 16 years ago that I had an opinion piece published in the Washington Post. The title, Destroying FEMA detailed how the transfer of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to the then relatively new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had precipitated damaging impacts to the functioning of FEMA.

What has changed at FEMA and its capabilities since Katrina landed in Louisiana and Mississippi? What are its capabilities and how effective an organization has it become?

First and foremost, since 2005 FEMA has had a succession of well qualified experienced emergency managers. The era of having political hacks come to lead what is now a developing profession and agency is over—for now.

Hurricane Katrina was a watershed event for FEMA and DHS. The total emphasis changed from having a complete focus on counter terrorism to a more appropriate apportionment of effort that recognizes the importance having a balanced portfolio of capability that understands the threat of natural disasters.

New leadership from the likes of Craig Fugate, the FEMA Administrator during the Obama Administration breathed new life into the organization. Fugate brought with him experience and a total focus on disaster response. He had an emphasis on “Go Fast-Go Big” in responding to large disasters. He wasn’t going to wait for a request to be made of the federal government. In the case of a hurricane like Super Storm Sandy he prepositioned staff and disaster supplies and equipment in the states that were likely to be hit by the storm. Those preparations bridged the logistics lag in getting supplies to people when they needed them as soon as possible.

He also fixed one internal people issue and created another. Every job description at FEMA was changed to included language that stated all members of FEMA were eligible for deployment to a disaster zone. This significantly increased the number of staff available when disasters strike.

In another personnel move he created a problem. Disaster reservists had been the backbone of the disaster recovery work done by FEMA when working with states and local jurisdictions. These staff were usually retired professionals, many of whom were engineers. They had the knowledge and expertise to deal with the complexities of disaster recovery and administering the billions of dollars in disaster relief funds provided at the local and regional levels. These staff would “volunteer” to work specific disaster responses and would deploy for a disaster recovery period that can be extensive. Basically, Fugate told these reservists, “You will work when I tell you, not when you want to.” Needless to say, these staff with their years of expertise left FEMA and did not return.

This void in staffing created a huge hole in numbers and expertise that FEMA has yet to recover from. They have attempted to fill it with young people they hire into what is called FEMA Corps. FEMA calls it a unique service corps that gives 18‐24‐year‐old participants the opportunity to serve communities impacted by disaster while gaining professional development experience. However, what they lack is years of experience in the disaster recovery process. They can hand out cases of water and bags of ice, but they can’t fill out a project worksheet that determines what portion of an infrastructure project will be reimbursable by the federal government and what portion remains with the city/county/state.

With continuing personnel shortages, the methodology that FEMA has adopted is robbing the past and still ongoing “Peter Disaster” to help with the new and imminent “Paul Disaster” that is staring them in the face.

This leads to people being shifted around the nation, being pulled off of one disaster recovery effort and being dispatched to the immediate threat from another disaster that is in the news. While this methodology has worked for a period of time, it is unsustainable.

One only needs to look at the proliferation of disasters being brought on by climate change. In 2021 alone the nation and FEMA is dealing with heat and drought, which are disasters in themselves and have created wildfires across the continent. Catastrophic flooding is regularly in the news

The bottom line is that FEMA does not have the staffing numbers it needs to respond and assist in the disaster recovery everywhere there is a Presidential disaster declaration.

Without congress working to authorize more staff for FEMA the existing and anticipated increase in workload brought on by climate change will lead to people burnout and then turnover in staff. This will only acerbate the shortage of experienced people.

In conclusion, improved leadership has moved FEMA forward from its darkest moment yet storm clouds remain on the horizon that require action.

The author, Eric E. Holdeman is the Director, Center for Regional Disaster Resilience
Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.
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