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Did FEMA Really Learn The Lessons Of Katrina?


Unlike Katrina in 2005, the government--as well as the aspiring governments of John McCain and Barack Obama--dropped everything for Hurricane Gustav. But how good was the response this time? TNR spoke with Jane Bullock, FEMA's chief of staff during the Clinton administration under James Lee Witt, who is considered the agency's best director, to assess:

I think a few things made this response better than Katrina: I think that DHS and FEMA knew that they would be under the microscope, so they pulled out all the stops. All of the assets that FEMA has were pre-positioned in the Gulf.

They're so concerned about the political fallout of another Katrina-type event. Look what happened last year. They had hundreds of thousands of dollars in bus contracts--not just standby contracts, but paid off, in my understanding--in case they needed to do another evacuation. They were just waiting for another storm to happen on the Gulf Coast. But we have to ask, what is going to happen if Hurricane Hannah hits Georgia and South Carolina? Are they pre-positioning supplies on the northeast coast, which is long overdue for another major hurricane?

Frankly, beyond pre-positioning in selected areas, I wouldn't say that FEMA and DHS have made other substantive improvements since Katrina. I think that what you're seeing is an agency and a department that could not afford to have another political fiasco...

But the two big problem areas we saw this week were communications--people couldn't talk to each other, and you still saw separate state, local, and federal briefings--and all sorts of problems with special needs populations. Take the issue of ambulances. In the 1990s, there was a regional planning approach, where every single agency knew exactly what they would be asked to provide. You didn't have this nervousness that if a state needed 300 ambulances, they might only get 200. That doesn't exist anymore.

That's a reflection of this administration's approach to natural disasters, which is guided by their focus on terrorism. If there's a terrorist attack, it's going to be a federal response by the FBI or DHS. They take the same approach to natural disasters, which reverses a very successful approach used during the 1990s where the first response was local, the second response was state, and--if they're overwhelmed--the feds are there to help and give them what they need, but not tell them what to do. Additionally, there doesn't seem to be any close coordination with NGOs, with the American Red Cross, the Catholic charities.

They were darn lucky that there were no levee failures. They had absolutely promised they would rebuild the levees, but the levees that have been rebuilt have not been rebuilt beyond a Category 3 storm. If this had been a Category 4 or 5 as originally forecasted, I guarantee that those levees would have been breached. I think they lucked out on this one...

One other thing that's going to happen now is that everybody's going to say, "Wow. You did better than Katrina." Well that's the lowest bar you could possibly reach for. ... Going forward, you'll be able to judge FEMA's response by how quickly people get back into their homes or find temporary housing; how quickly businesses recover; and how quickly insurance issues are settled--especially those dealing with the National Flood Insurance Program, which is run by FEMA--or whether the agency bogs down. The other thing to look at is--with several additional tropical storms or hurricanes coming across--how they will work when they haven't spent so much time prepositioning assets.

--Barron YoungSmith