Saturday, August 15, 2009
The September issue of The Atlantic profiles Craig Fugate, Barack Obama's new head of FEMA. He seems like an excellent appointee in at least two respects. First, he is adjusting the expectations for the agency to conform to reality, something the Bush administration ought to have done much better.
“We need to change behavior in this country,” he told about 400 emergency-management instructors at a conference in June, lambasting the “government-centric” approach to disasters. He learned a perverse lesson in Florida: the more the federal government does in routine emergencies, the greater the odds of catastrophic failure in a big disaster. “It’s like a Chinese finger trap,” he told me last spring, as a hailstorm fittingly raged outside his office. If the feds do more, the public, along with state and local officials, do less. They come to expect ice and water in 24 hours and full reimbursement for sodden carpets. But as part of a federal system, FEMA is designed to defer to state and local officials. If another Katrina hits, and the locals are overwhelmed, a full-strength federal response will inevitably take time. People who need help the most—the elderly, the disabled, and the poor—may not get it fast enough.
Friendly observation that these were not observations readily found in the pages of the Atlantic or most other mainstream media publications in, say, September 2005.
Fugate's means for changing the terms of the discussion is even more interesting, more "Army of Davids" than nanny state:
To avoid “system collapse,” as he puts it, Fugate insists that the government must draft the public. “We tend to look at the public as a liability. [But] who is going to be the fastest responder when your house falls on your head? Your neighbor.” A few years ago, Fugate dropped the word victim from his vocabulary. “You’re not going to hear me refer to people as victims unless we’ve lost ’em. I call them survivors.” He criticizes the media for “celebrating” people who choose not to evacuate and then have to be rescued on live TV—while ignoring all the people who were prepared. “This is a tragedy, this whole Shakespearean circle we’re in. You never hear the media say, ‘Hey, you’re putting this rescue worker in danger.’”
At his first all-staff meeting with FEMA employees, Fugate asked for a show of hands: “How many people here have your family disaster plan ready to go? [If you don’t], you just failed your first test … If you’re going to be an emergency manager, the first place you start is at home.” Already, Fugate is factoring citizens into the agency’s models for catastrophic planning, thinking of them as rescuers and responders, not just victims.
The test, of course, will be our first disaster under Fugate's watch. Will the White House back him as he demands more from the locals, or will it throw him under the bus when the press starts weeping for the "victims" who ignored the order to evacuate? Let's hope Fugate prevails in his vision, which strikes me as a genuinely American response to disaster.
Fugate almost sounds like a conservative. OTOH, I expect Obama's FEMA to get much friendlier press coverage than they ever could hope to receive under a GOP administration. FEMA blunders 'equivalent' to 9.5% unemployment and multi-trillion dollar deficits will be spun favorably. After all, our first black president must not be allowed to fail.
I've read several books lately on surviving disasters (can't remember what got me on that thread). Simply put survivors are prepared, especially mentally. If you are prepared mentally, you should be physically as well. On a good day day when you need help this second, it is minutes away. In a disaster, everyday emergency services are overwhelmed.
Interestingly enough, this brings the conclusion that we need to be teaching individual citizens how to be part of the solution. Lets see if FEMA starts an outreach there.
As a New Orleans native who was evacuated 5 weeks for Katrina I can tell you that Fugate is exactly right. The sad thing is that if he were head of FEMA during Katrina we would be attacked by the media for saying these things. He can only get away with them now because a Democrat is in the whitehouse. Rank hypocrisy by the media
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It's good that the Director of FEMA is a former state Emergency Management director. But, Obama had no choice, the Congress made that a job qualification when they brought FEMA back to full agency status under DHS.
"Brownie" was Undersecretary of Emergency Preparedness and Response, the an eviserated segment of FEMA after being swallowed by DHS. Mike Brown didn't have the qualifications either, he was a lawyer and former Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association. He joined the pre-DHS FEMA as General Counsel. And was nominated as Undersecretary after Joe Allbaugh, Bush's campaign director, quit.
FEMA had been a position for political lackies for all of it's history. Bill Clinton changed that by nominating his own State Emergency Management director, James Lee Witt. Witt knows his stuff and is pleasant to work with. I've had breakfast and lunch with him on a few occasions.
Bush brough back the lacky director to FEMA and it all went down hill from there.
I don't know if "Brownie" was doing "a heck of a job" or not during Katrina. It was a bad place to have a disaster. An incompentent Mayor and Governor did them in. Plus, the Governor was always bursting into tears. Sheesh.