Politics & Policy

Fema as Dmv


Among all the perils facing survivors in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina–drowning, starvation, toxic waters, poisonous snakes–sexual harassment had to be far down the list. But days after the disaster, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had 1,400 firefighters from around the country who had volunteered to help in New Orleans sitting in a conference room in Atlanta undergoing eight hours of training that included a sexual-harassment class. All this before they were allowed even to go to the Gulf Coast area to give out fliers and FEMA’s phone number.

Hurricane Katrina has laid bare the peculiar perversities of the bureaucratic mind: its utter commitment to niggling rules, its inability to take risks, its failure to the think on the fly. Leadership matters, and in the disaster’s initial days, it was hard to tell when FEMA head Michael Brown was doing more harm–when he tried to do his job, or when he tried to explain on TV how he was doing his job. But at the end of the day, FEMA is a close cousin to your local DMV, which you would never want to trust with your life.

In so much of the Katrina response, senselessness ruled the day. Post-9/11 regulations meant that FEMA couldn’t put evacuees on flights at the New Orleans airport without security screening and federal air marshals on the flights. Apparently, the fear was that terrorists had positioned themselves in New Orleans prior to Katrina so they could pose as bedraggled evacuees, on the off chance an opportunity would arise for them to hijack a rescue plane. Since the power was down, the X-ray machines and metal detectors didn’t work, and it was decided that manual searches would have to suffice. Don’t forget to pat down the children!

The president of Jefferson Parish, south of New Orleans, has complained that FEMA turned away three Wal-Mart trailer trucks with water and kept the Coast Guard from delivering 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Republican Sen. Trent Lott criticized FEMA for blocking thousands of trailers sitting in Atlanta ready to head to the Mississippi coast. Surely, there were carefully crafted rules and procedures that accounted for these and other decisions to turn away aid. The only eventuality that such rules and procedures can’t be written for is when someone should say, “to hell with all these rules and procedures.” Louisiana Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, writes: “My office became so frustrated with the bureaucracy that we often turned to private companies. They responded more quickly and flexibly.”

Of course, the only thing Washington politicians love more than beating up on bureaucracy is creating it. It’s one of the few things Washington can do–make new offices and hire bureaucrats to fill them. So, after 9/11, all of Washington supported stapling together as many agencies as possible, including FEMA, in the Department of Homeland Security–such a sprawling bureaucratic monstrosity that it will take a generation to make it work, if ever. But everyone from the president on down pretended he had protected homeland security through the mere act of naming a department after it.

Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done to make bureaucracy less bureaucratic. It makes sense to keep as much authority at the state and local levels as possible, since there officials will at least be more aware of local circumstances (although they can also be scandalously incompetent, as we’ve seen in New Orleans). Political leaders must constantly ride herd on the bureaucracy to keep it from giving in entirely to its inbred, irrational tendencies. This is where the Bush administration really fell down. Finally, there is no substitute for old-fashioned individual initiative. A great hero of New Orleans is the 20-year-old who commandeered a school bus and drove evacuees all the way to Houston, arriving before any of the official convoys. The key to his success? He acted without bureaucratic approval.

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years.

(c) 2005 King Features Syndicate


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