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Published:September 8th, 2005 18:22 EST
FEMA's Authority - One nation under FEMA

FEMA's Authority - One nation under FEMA

By John Goodin

There is a particularly comical television advertisement that has been making the rounds as of late. In this advertisement for a Nintendo videogame, two military officials stand in an anonymous bunker, investigating a large map of their supposed target. Both officials place small figures on the map, indicating how the target should be dealt with, and each scoffs at the other’s decision. They begin quarrelling over the tactics, shoving each other and trading repeated cries of “You stop it! You stop it!” Almost immediately, the conflicts of interest have turned a major military operation into a childlike squabble.

Like they say, it would be funnier if it wasn’t true.

After the shock of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation subsided, the nation began to search for someone to carry the blame. Unlike 9/11 and the recent Asian tsunami, this disaster had been foreseen. What was not expected, however, was the apparent lag in the relief effort. Why wasn’t food being dropped? Where was the medication? Why did those devastated people look to the sky to find it empty, and not teeming with aircrafts attempting everything they could in order to rescue them? It was through these questions that America found its target, and FEMA found itself in the crosshairs.

Created under President Carter in 1979, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is the government organization primarily responsible for “responding to, planning for, recovering from and mitigating against disasters.” These responsibilities include man-made as well as natural disasters, and are carried out across the globe.

Exactly how FEMA handles these events is not commonly known. Although FEMA is the name most often thrown around in dire situations, it is actually an amalgam of lesser departments; an entity charged with creating more efficient collaboration between smaller federal, state, and local agencies. Under the central leadership of Michael D. Brown, FEMA is split up into ten different regions across the country, which are, in turn, comprised of various active authorities.

With such a strict and complex hierarchy, a major concern of the agency is making its bureaucratic processes as efficient as possible. However, this is not always a feasible situation. For instance, those in devastated areas that apply for disaster assistance are required to contact a teleregistration hotline (1-800-621-FEMA). The agency’s website advises applicants to be prepared with their social security number, descriptions of the damage, and financial information. After calling this number, applicants may receive an informational package through the mail. Processes such as these may seem quick and easy from Washington, but may be more difficult for those who find themselves in cities of rubble.

It is precisely this paper-shuffling that comprises the majority of FEMA’s operations. Large and thorough efforts are spent on dictating warning and aid procedures, as well as handling the aftermath of disasters. FEMA’s role in the September 11 terrorist attacks was primarily that of a clean-up crew, distributing $4.5 billion for damage restoration, emergency response, and debris removal.

For an event that made heroes of the firemen and police officers that risked their lives first and asked questions later, the response of FEMA seemed somewhat reserved. Its ability and responsibility to provide rapid ground-level rescue operations is only a small portion of its obligations; which it does not seem to fulfill very well.

The groups in charge of such missions are called Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces (USARs). There are currently 27 task forces in operation, although only 24 are considered fully operational. Each team consists of about 70 workers, with varying specialties. The task forces are considered local entities due to their limited range of response, but are funded and trained by the federal government. Not surprisingly, operating under several sources of leadership has proved problematic at times. After the attack of Hurricane Andrew of Louisiana in 1992, local USAR forces found themselves tied up in red tape. “…there were USAR teams which could have responded,” said Task Force Coordinator Peter Smalley. “Unfortunately, someone at the local level told FEMA that we would not be needing USAR resources.”

Bureaucratic tampering has been evident in FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina as well. Its delayed action has demonstrated that it may be equipped to handle awareness and clean-up operations, but simply is not in a position to deal with a disaster as immediately threatening as the recent one in the U.S. Gulf. This is most exemplified by the widely seen footage of rescue helicopters grabbing survivors one-by-one, allowing 2-4 people per helicopter, provided they meet the weight requirements. Those private residents wishing to perform rescues of their own have been turned away, being told to wait for the proper authorities and the National Guard to arrive.

After being included in the Department of Homeland Security in 2001, FEMA has adopted a strong focus on preventing terrorism in the U.S. However, with a massive attack perpetrated solely by mother nature, it was the nation’s own governmental resources that shouldered the blame. Granted, the specific circumstances of Katrina’s aftermath were hardly expected, but the luxury of prior knowledge is not one that can realistically be expected. The American spirit is steadfast and indomitable, but only time will tell whether that spirit will be carried in the actions of its people or the law books of its capital.