Hurricane Ike wrecked havoc on the Gulf Coast last weekend. The death toll isn’t final yet, and the property destruction is heartbreaking to see. I’m watching the aftermath with personal interest: I was an evacuee from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and my parents live just north of Houston and are being told they will not have power for the next 2-4 weeks. After the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s deplorable reaction to Katrina, the entire nation is waiting to see how it will handle this latest natural disaster.
With so many eyes focused on FEMA, I thought we all might benefit from learning a bit more about its rocky history. The following is an excerpt about FEMA from Ted Steinberg’s book Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America.
Meet Freddy Krueger
In 1982, a student at Harvard asked Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger whether he thought the world was going to end and, if so, how. “I have read the Book of Revelation,” Weinberger responded, “and, yes, I believe the world is going to end—by an act of God, I hope—but every day I think that time is running out.” Soviet nuclear attack, not natural disaster, was the secretary’s worst nightmare. He was far from alone in his concern. Precisely this vision of nuclear annihilation preoccupied his colleagues at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). From 1982 forward, doomsters at the agency worried far more about mushroom, not funnel, clouds.
The government launched FEMA in 1979 after more than 30 years spent bouncing responsibility for disaster, natural and man-made, from one agency to another. In creating the agency, Carter had hoped to put to rest criticisms of the federal government’s handling of emergency management. But under presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, FEMA was, according to a congressional report, quickly turned into “a dumping ground for political hacks.” Consider Phil May, appointed in 1981 to take charge of FEMA activities in the Southeast. Experience: six years working for a congressman and six months working to elect Reagan. Grant Peterson, appointed later to head the agency’s disaster relief response, was a former television executive and county commissioner from Spokane. Heading up the entire operation was Director Louis Giuffrida. A general in the California National Guard who had served as a longtime Reagan advisor, Giuffrida had written a bizarre thesis while at the U.S. Army War College in 1970. Titled “National Survival—Racial Imperative,” the thesis dealt in part with the logistics of interning blacks in the event of hypothetical urban riot. Most of Giuffrida’s background centered on responding to terrorist attacks and squelching political protests, which of course made him ideal to lead an agency ultimately concerned with responding to nuclear war. Bush himself appointed Wallace Stickney to head the agency, a man whose “only apparent qualification for the post,” wrote Daniel Franklin in the Washington Monthly, “was that he was a close friend and former next-door neighbor of Bush Chief of Staff John Sununu.” In 1992, FEMA had nine times as many political appointees as the average for all federal government agencies.
During the 1990s, FEMA spent the vast majority of its energies on an elaborate plan to safeguard the government during nuclear attack. The plan, established with the help of Col. Oliver North—famous his grandiose schemes—eventually involved the deployment across the country of some 300 vehicles packed with generators, special radios, telephones, and satellite dishes. Rather than send the president and his aids to an underground bunker (the prior standard operating procedure during attack), the idea was to engage in a kind of shell game while still allowing government officials to communicate globally. Between 1982 and 1992, FEMA spent almost $3 billion developing equipment and plans for either protecting government officials during nuclear war or dealing with other aspects of national security. During the same time, it spent just $243 million on planning for natural disaster. In other words, FEMA spent 12 times as much on nuclear attack—ironically, the ultimate human-induced calamity—as it did on natural calamity. “There is a holocaust mentality in the FEMA hierarchy which provides first priority to the nuclear attack-related activities and relegates all other natural and peacetime technological disasters to the back burner,” explained Leon McGoogan, an Arkansas emergency management official in 1986.
Still wrestling with the potential fallout of nuclear attack, FEMA was caught off-guard in 1989 when the United States began to experience a rise in mega-calamities. FEMA’s expert preparedness for nuclear Armageddon, for example, hardly helped South Carolina’s rural poor after Hurricane Hugo. Five days after the storm crashed through the state, federal relief officials had yet to provide food and water to victims in towns such as St. Stephen and Ridgeville, outside of Charleston. In rural Berkeley County, where St. Stephen is located, it took FEMA 10 days to open up a disaster assistance center. None of this is terribly shocking given that FEMA did not even establish a set of standard operating procedures to coordinate disaster relief efficiently. A full nine months after Hugo, some 1,200 families in rural South Carolina still needed help. Then, in 1991, FEMA abruptly shut down its funding of an outreach program designed to help victims both financially and emotionally. Outreach is critical to recovery in poor, rural areas where people are often unaware of the government programs set up to help them. The federal government just seemed to sit back and wait for people “to jump in their cars and ride down” into town for help, noted Mayor Robert Hoffman of St. Stephen. But as he pointed out, “a lot of people don’t even know what FEMA is.”
While FEMA lurched into action in South Carolina, the Loma Prieta earthquake ripped through northern California in October of that same year. FEMA’s response so appalled Alameda County Supervisor Don Perata that he wondered whether the IRS—routinely the butt of jokes about is mercenary nature—was getting a raw deal. “One used to think that the major horror in life in dealing with the Federal Government was the IRS; they have gotten a bad rap,” he said. The IRS was “like Mary Poppins compared to FEMA as Freddie Krueger,” the horror movie character.