Federal Emergency Management Agency

Through mismanagement, waste, cronyism, budget slashing, and fraud, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been largely ineffectual, causing businesses as well as individuals to suffer needlessly in the wake of disasters.

Created on April 1, 1979, by President Jimmy Carter, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was a federal government response to the need for a centralized emergency management system. Formed from a combination of a number of relief agencies that had previously been ineffective in natural disasters, FEMA was named the nation’s primary disaster-response agency, charged with providing relief from hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes, and aid for civil defense. To begin the process, the afflicted state’s governor must declare a state of emergency and ask the government for assistance, which comes in the form of emergency services for the disaster area and later with financial help for recovery.Federal Emergency Management Agency

Criticisms of FEMA

Criticisms of ineffectiveness began to dog FEMA. The slowness of FEMA’s response to the devastation of South Carolina by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 brought angry assertions of ineptitude. Category 5 Hurricane Andrew’s swath across South Florida in 1992 left thousands stranded without food or water. Confused and unprepared, FEMA officials designated duties to special subgroups but did not establish a presence at the disaster site. Federal assistance finally arrived five days after the catastrophe.

As a result of its disappointing performance, FEMA was restructured by President Bill Clinton in 1993 to include twenty-two federal agencies. Clinton nominated James Lee Witt, James LeeWitt, a former emergency management director from Arkansas, as its director. Witt’s success at reducing bureaucracy and emphasizing community preparedness led to FEMA’s advancement to the rank of cabinet-level department in 1996. With a budget of $4 billion, FEMA was an independent agency whose responsibilities expanded continuously.

Witt left his position when President George W. Bush took office and was replaced by Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s former campaign director, who, at Bush’s direction, cut FEMA’s budget for 2001 to $2.1 billion. Allbaugh considered the three most likely disaster areas would center around a hurricane in New Orleans, an earthquake in California, or a terrorist attack in New York, and planned a practice exercise for FEMA. In May, 2001, FEMA’s duties were expanded to include a response to terrorism.

Consequently, FEMA was one of the first responders to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11 terrorist attacksSeptember 11, 2001, but relinquished command of the recovery to the New York City Office of Emergency Management. FEMA later approved the distribution of $5.5 billion to local and state governments to help with the costs of recovery.


A FEMA inspector stands in the rubble of a San Leon, Texas, home destroyed by Hurricane Ike in September, 2008.

(FEMA/Greg Hensall)

Following the terrorist attacks, President Bush created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and FEMA was downgraded to a subdepartment within DHS. Allbaugh resigned, and his friend Michael Brown, MichaelBrown assumed the directorship of FEMA. Downsizing of FEMA continued, as well as the shifting of money from it to other agencies. A planned disaster exercise for “Hurricane Pam,” a catastrophic hurricane in New Orleans that would leave 100,000 people stranded in the city, was scratched because Bush had cut the funding. Emphasis in FEMA had shifted to terrorism, rather than natural disasters, and Brown saw FEMA as an impending failure.

FEMA came under fire again in 2004, following a succession of hurricanes that swept Florida in a period of six weeks. The disbursement of recovery funds was later found to have been indiscriminately made, sending $31 million to residents who were largely unaffected by Hurricane Frances, including millions for residents whose homes were undamaged. When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005, FEMA earned the ire of Americans for its slow response and, later, for its mismanagement and waste.

Shortly after Hurricane KatrinaHurricane Katrina’s landfall, Congress sanctioned $62.3 billion in disaster relief for FEMA, whose allocations were $23 billion for temporary housing and household costs; $8 billion for rescue, roads, and bridges; $3 billion for evacuation; $5 billion for urban recovery; and $15 million for Homeland Security’s monitoring of spending. Aware of its discouraging track record, FEMA dispatched thirty auditors to the Gulf Coast to keep track of the money. In an effort to minimize abuse, the DHS was required to report weekly to Congress on spending.

Although Brown was blamed for most of the disastrous results of FEMA’s mismanagement of the Hurricane Katrina operation and was removed from his responsibilities by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, the problem proved to be larger than Brown. Money was free-flowing. One estimate determined that the government handed out about $800 million a day for everything deemed a necessity.

FEMA issued more than ten thousand charge cards worth more than $20 million to evacuees, later increasing the spending amount on each card from $15,000 to $250,000. FEMA chose to engage three ships from Carnival Cruise Lines for $220 million to accommodate seven thousand relief workers, despite the fact that the government of Greece had offered the use of two ships for free. Also, a sharp controversy arose between FEMA and Kathleen Blanco, the governor of Louisiana, concerning sluggish removal of dead bodies. The controversy resulted in the loss of some FEMA contracts.

Critics of FEMA attacked its outsourcing of recovery, handled largely through no-bid contracts to companies with strong ties to the Bush administration. This outsourcing in effect prevented local residents whose employers had been shut down by the disaster from gaining employment helping their city. It also stymied efforts to monitor spending. Moreover, FEMA critics maintained that generous contracts to rebuild encouraged the rebuilding of homes in disaster-prone areas whose owners would then refuse to buy natural disaster insurance, expecting the government to come to their aid. FEMA was loudly condemned when, with generous allocations from Congress, it purchased for storm victims almost 300,000 trailers–a demand that outstripped the builders’ abilities to supply them. When they arrived, residents were sickened by chemical residues in the trailers. Investigations revealed the trailers were products of shoddy construction using inferior materials.

Further Reading

  • Burns, Linda A., ed. FEMA: An Agency in the Crosshairs. New York: Novinka, 2007. A collection of essays examining the agency’s history and its programs.
  • Craig, Steven J. Chronicles of Katrina: Lessons Learned from the Hurricane Katrina Disaster for Your Home Preparedness. Denver, Colo.: Outskirts Press, 2007. Detailed instructions and tips for home preparedness.
  • Marzilli, Alan. Disaster Relief. New York: Chelsea House, 2007. A point-counterpoint discussion of the role of federal and state governments, the adequacy of financial aid, and the role of flood insurance.
  • Redmond, Robert. The Katrina Puzzle: America’s Disgrace. Denver, Colo.: Outskirts Press, 2007. Criticizes the lack of response by FEMA to the area of devastation and the attempts at recovery.
  • White, Jonathan R. Terrorism and Homeland Security: An Introduction. 6th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2008. Discusses the backgrounds of modern terrorism and contemporary conflicts and provides detailed information on the organization of the Department of Homeland Security.

Great Depression

U.S. Department of Homeland Security

New Deal programs

September 11 terrorist attacks