Five Years After Katrina Conservatives Still Want To Gut FEMA

Bill Scher

We know the pathetic disaster response to Hurricane Katrina by the Bush administration was rooted in anti-government, pro-privatization conservative ideology. President Bush removed FEMA from the cabinet, repeatedly appointed FEMA chiefs with no disaster management experience, and privatized key functions.

Have conservatives learned anything from that experience? Apparently not.

The conservative movement’s intellectual leaders at The Heritage Foundation are attacking the Obama administration for … no, I’m not kidding … using FEMA too much.

Heritage’s Matt Meyer yesterday urged governors to “stiffen their spines and FEMA to get its finger off the declaration trigger.” He continued:

In the continuing (over)reaction to the failures of Hurricane Katrina five years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) once again “leaned forward” in anticipation of a hurricane…

…Since his inauguration, President Barack Obama has issued 195 FEMA declarations despite the fact that not a single hurricane has hit the United States in that time span and only one minor earthquake has occurred. In less than two years, FEMA under President Obama has issued more declarations than the Eisenhower (106), Kennedy (52), Johnson (93), Ford (101), Carter (176), and H.W. Bush (174) Administrations and only slightly fewer than the Nixon (212) and Reagan (225) Administrations did throughout their entire presidencies…

…As we have long argued, this country needs to get FEMA out of the routine natural disaster business and reserve its capabilities for catastrophic events.

There’s a lot of nonsense there to break down.

1. We aren’t hearing any complaints from governors for a reason, because they like just fine an agile FEMA that partners with states and cities.

A recent W. Post profile of current FEMA chief Craig Fugate reported:

Back in May while other parts of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) juggled the Gulf Coast oil spill and failed Times Square bombing, FEMA responded to flash flooding in Tennessee.

“They had people here before it was officially declared a disaster area,” Nashville Mayor Karl Dean (D) said. “When they got here, they came in with a significant number of people, going door to door, and they were writing checks real quickly.”

More than 23,700 residents registered for federal assistance and had received more than $80 million in aid as of last week, according to Dean’s office.

Fugate visited Tennessee three times in the first week and listened closely to local leaders, said Gov. Phil Bredesen (D).

“I think it’s the example of what a federal agency should be these days, starting with a guy who really knows his stuff and does stuff not just for the cameras,” Bredesen said.

2. Major disasters are not just hurricanes and earthquakes. There are also severe floods, blizzards, wildfires, tornadoes, hazardous waste spills and more. It’s the kind of thing a disaster management professional would understand.

3. Maybe there are more declarations because FEMA is finally doing its job. I’m not even sure what Heritage gets “195 FEMA declarations” from. The FEMA website indicates there have been 124 through mid-August.

But who cares if it is 195? Who cares if it is more declarations than past administrations?

Because most past administrations did a terrible job of disaster management.

FEMA wasn’t even created until 1979, because the nation’s governors pleaded with President Jimmy Carter to centralize federal disaster planning and management and help fix decades of inconsistent government responses.

But subsequent conservative presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush treated FEMA as a “dumping ground” for cronies.

After the first Bush botched the response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Bill Clinton pledged to himself he would treat FEMA differently. From his autobiography “My Life”:

I was surprised to hear complaints from both local officials and residents about how the Federal Emergency Management Agency was handling the aftermath of the hurricane. Traditionally, the job of FEMA director was given to a political supporter of the President who wanted some plum position but who had no experience with emergencies. I made a mental note to avoid that mistake if I won. Voters don’t chose a President based on how he’ll handle disasters, but if they’re faced with one themselves, it quickly becomes the most important issue in their lives.

He followed through and FEMA became a standout government agency, only to be dismantled by the second President Bush.

So why would we judge Obama’s FEMA performance based on the awful performances of Reagan and the first President Bush, not to mention the administrations from before FEMA even existed?

No rational person would. But conservative hatred of responsible and responsive government is not based on being rational.

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