NY Times advanced Bush administration's dubious suggestion that FEMA is "better prepare[d]" to handle hurricane crisis than before 9-11


A September 1 New York Times article by reporter Richard W. Stevenson adopted the Bush administration's claim that "the work done since 2001 to better prepare the nation for a possible terrorist attack" was also "helping" the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) respond to the Gulf Coast crisis that has ensued in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In fact, as noted in recent news reports by the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal (subscription required) and in a Washington Post op-ed, the Bush administration reduced FEMA's status after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by folding the agency into the Department of Homeland Security, which likely hampered the agency's ability to respond to natural disasters like Katrina.

Stevenson's New York Times report made no mention of FEMA's reduced status but did cite several statistics, as well as a remark by a senior fellow from the conservative Heritage Foundation, that each appeared to support the administration line:

Officials at the Homeland Security Department and other federal agencies said they were convinced that the work done since 2001 to better prepare the nation for a possible terrorist attack was helping in this catastrophe as well, speeding the delivery of relief and other aid and, perhaps most important, improving the coordination of the more than a dozen federal agencies involved in the effort. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had five logistics centers in the United States before its merger with the Homeland Security Department; it now has 65.

"This is an exam for everything we have done since 9/11," said James Jay Carafano, an expert on domestic security and a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization.

Under the plan, the government swung into action on many fronts. FEMA said it had contracted for 455 buses to move the thousands of refugees in the Superdome in New Orleans to the Astrodome in Houston.

Yet the Times' account runs counter to three other major newspapers that have each devoted a full article or op-ed to the implications of FEMA's reduced role in the Bush administration.

As the Los Angeles Times emphasized in a September 1 article titled "A Diminished FEMA Scrambles to the Rescue," the "resources and energy devoted to preparing for natural disasters were reduced" after 9-11, when "FEMA saw its standing within the federal government downgraded sharply and its mission pushed lower on the priorities list as the Bush administration focused on the threat of terrorism." The Wall Street Journal provided a similar account in an August 31 report titled "Already Under Scrutiny, FEMA Is Now in the Spotlight," which noted that FEMA is no longer involved in "planning for catastrophes," and that, before Bush, the "Clinton White House [had] elevated the FEMA director to a cabinet position that reported directly to the president":

How FEMA responds will be closely scrutinized in Congress, where there is a debate over whether the Bush administration is diluting FEMA's effectiveness by making it primarily a relief and response agency. Traditionally, FEMA has also been actively involved in planning for catastrophes.

Created in 1979 by President Carter to manage federal responses to disasters, FEMA hit its nadir in its 1992 handling of Hurricane Andrew, when thousands went without shelter for days. The Clinton White House elevated the FEMA director to a cabinet position that reported directly to the president. But in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, FEMA has been absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security. Its reduced status has prompted criticism from state and local emergency officials that FEMA's efforts to respond to natural disasters are being overshadowed by the department's focus on terrorism.

In an August 30 Washington Post op-ed titled "Destroying FEMA," Eric Holdeman, director of the King County, Washington, Office of Emergency Management, wrote that "the advent of the Bush administration in January 2001 signaled the beginning of the end for FEMA" and that FEMA is currently being "systematically downgraded and all but dismantled by the Department of Homeland Security." As Newhouse News Service reported on August 31, "[t]he Homeland Security agency plans to create a new directorate of preparedness, covering planning for both terrorism and natural disasters. But it is still on the drawing board."

As Knight Ridder reported on August 31, James Lee Witt, former FEMA director under President Clinton, gave a specific example of how the Bush administration has weakened FEMA's ability to respond to Hurricane Katrina:

Being prepared for a disaster is basic emergency management, disaster experts say.

For example, in the 1990s, in planning for a New Orleans nightmare scenario, the federal government figured it would pre-deploy nearby ships with pumps to remove water from the below-sea-level city and have hospital ships nearby, said James Lee Witt, who was FEMA director under President Clinton.

Federal officials said a hospital ship would leave from Baltimore on Friday.

"These things need to be planned and prepared for; it just doesn't look like it was," said Witt, a former Arkansas disaster chief who won bipartisan praise on Capitol Hill during his tenure.

Posted In
Environment & Science, National Security & Foreign Policy
Hurricane Katrina
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