FEMA is a Mess

Addition:  See important conversation in comments below. 

Original posting:

Reasonable people can disagree as to the proper balance between the state and federal governments when it comes to disaster planning and recovery.

What frustrates me is the reflexive, by some, defense of FEMA its current form. I have spent time studying FEMA and devote a fair amount of space to it in Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather. My conclusion: FEMA is a mess.

With eight days' (!) "heads up" (European model) and 4.5 days solid notice that Hurricane Sandy was going to strike a densely populated area, they have already run out of water??!!  Before you complain about whether Breitbart is "neutral" or not (what news organization is, these days?), I've gone to FEMA's "rumor" page where they dispel rumors and falsehoods about FEMA and they do not deny it.

I can cite chapter and verse about petty bickering between FEMA regions, mis-alocation of resources, and their utter failures in Katrina, Andrew, and other storms. Want to fix FEMA? Great. Want to defend it in its present form? Indefensible.


  1. I think your rumor is false...


    Also it appears that many don't understand how emergency management works. The first response is local. If the local runs out, they request from their regional mutual aid partners. If that's out, they make a reeuest from their state. If that runs out, they request from neighboring states through EMAC. If that's out, they request from FEMA.

  2. Rob,

    Thank you. However, there was nothing on their "rumor" web site when I posted.

    I know how EM works and the "local up" philosophy. But, the locals were indeed requesting help in NYC and people on Staten Island continue to report that FEMA didn't show up until yesterday -- and then with promises rather than aid.

  3. Let me get this straight:
    1. Forecast shows the eastern seaboard near NYC to be the likely landfall location.
    2. This area has some of the highest population densities in the US.
    3. This population relies upon electricity, with almost all consumable products being shipped in on a daily basis.
    4. Limited storage exists for these products locally, and are shipped from a regional area that includes several states both adjoining and distant.
    5. Almost all public Mass Transportation runs on electricity.
    6. Much of that transportation was known to be vulnerable to damaged by flood waters.
    7. Almost all surface transportation is at a standstill due to fuel shortages caused by power loss also known before hand.
    8. All of the above is common knowledge. We have spent Billions of Dollars on FEMA to plan for these types of disasters.

    Given all of the above, how can there be not water or food available? They have only started to solicit bids for water? What type of critical thought went into the response? Why were they not staging outside of the direct impact zone with supplies?

    My only explanation is this; the department that failed with this response is the same department that cannot perform airport security that protects the public. Every threat since 9/11 in an airliner has been thwarted by the passengers, and not detected before boarding. The TSA's own audits show abysmal performance of the system. This failure is just par for the course.

  4. Richard, as noted, the lack of food/water rumor was false. Whoever told you billions of dollars was going to FEMA for disaster response was also wrong. Billions goes to DHS and is focused on Bush-era policies of terrorism prevention. Disasters are not a major concern of DHS.

    But it still comes back to the locals. If NYC runs out of water or food, it's their fault. If they need water after a week still, then it's FEMA.

  5. Rob,

    There is additional reporting this morning that says FEMA is indeed out of water. While I am not there and have no first-hand way of evaluating it, I do know that FEMA is good with spin.

    It may be that FEMA has the water (somewhere) but isn't getting it where it is needed.


  6. Rob,

    I as Mike live in the Central US, and do not have direct experience with this disaster situation. However, I have friends and relatives that have been affected, and their stories match what is currently being reported, by various news outlets. Also, I know from past experience with FEMA that they are normally a day late and dollar short when responding, and this is from direct experience. So, from a historical, personal, first person reports, and media reporting aspect, I must accept the status as reported.

    FEMA is part of the DHS. As such they are responsible for preparedness and response to disasters. Rarely do you get the warning for events of this magnitude. What did they do with this warning? They either ignored it, or did not know what to do with it or about it. This response shows the sheer incompetence of this organization. They failed in one of their primary functions, and will continue to fail until held responsible.

    Nowhere in my post did I mention any political viewpoint. I grow tired of the Blame Bush knee jerk response. Bush has been out of office for almost 4 years, it is time to stop blaming him for everything bad in our government. Janet Napaletano has had 4 years to fix it, and since it is still broke, she and the current administration own it.

    While I would accept your premise that NYC should be more responsible for the short term response, the population density and lack of storage makes this nearly impossible. Also, given the size of the affected area by this storm means that the resources nearby would be taxed as well, requiring a larger multi-state response. Even the most prepared communities in the world would find that difficult, if not impossible. Also, it must be understood that the same facilities that stored the necessary goods would be affected as well. The prediction and classification of this storm days in advance should have mobilized FEMA to get ahead of the curve. That did not happen, and they were caught flat footed as normal. Private organizations were prepared, and volunteers were at the ready for this, but the government professionals were not? This shows me that the Government cannot keep up with the state of the art in science and technology. We see this at both the local and national levels. Unfortunately this lack of understanding costs lives that could have been saved.

    My concern for NYC is the lack of effort to protect the city from storms that are known to have historically occurred. It appears that the city is more worried about trans-fats and the size of carbonated drinks than the need for infrastructure improvements. Should the subways have been protected by flood gates? Yes. Should the infrastructure been more hardened to storm surges? Yes. Were they protected? No. A city of 8.2 million people with no plan for protection of the critical infrastructure is a city open to disaster. Maybe this will wake some people up.


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