Hurricane Sandy Aftermath: Why FEMA Needs to Have a Clearer Mission Moving Forward

ByErik Iverson

The successful national response to Hurricane Sandy is just the latest evidence of a remarkable turnaround at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Over the last four years, FEMA has supported over 273 major disaster responses all over the country, earning accolades that few would have imagined possible during the post-Hurricane Katrina debates about dissolving FEMA altogether. Yet, the lack of political consensus around the proper role of the federal government in disasters threatens to unravel this progress.

This is not the first time that FEMA has risen from near oblivion and achieved success only to fade back into a state of disrepair. If leaders fail to heed the lessons of recent history, we may be doomed to repeat it again at great cost to those among us who will be affected by disasters in years to come.

Since its establishment in 1979, FEMA has struggled to overcome a cycle punctuated by public failings, a painstaking process of organizational reinvention, and a gradual period of decay before the cycle begins anew a decade later. For example, FEMA’s fumbling response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992 precipitated then-FEMA Director James Lee Witt’s successful overhaul of the agency before a period of neglect and turbulence set the stage for FEMA’s tragic response to Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps no other agency in the federal government has been so alternately reviled, admired, and reviled anew in such a short period of time.

In order to break out of this cyle it is essential that we understand why FEMA has been unable to perform as consistently as many of its peer organizations, such as the Coast Guard. In fact, recent research suggests that the single greatest challenge to FEMA’s success has been neither natural disaster nor terrorist attacks, but rather, fundamental political disagreement about the proper role of the federal government in disasters.

Historically, Republicans and Democrats have vigorously disagreed about the proper orientation and scope of the federal government in disaster response. Governor Mitt Romney’s recent remarks questioning the proper role of FEMA were not simply political posturing but legitimate expressions of a broader current of Republican thought. 

Over the past three decades, Republicans have favored a national security orientation for FEMA and a limited role supporting state responses to the most catastrophic disasters. During the Reagan Administration, FEMA was largely preoccupied with civil defense concerns related to the threat of Soviet nuclear attack. The Bush administration re-focused FEMA on counter-terrorism and placed the agency within the new Department of Homeland Security.

Democrats have generally preferred an “all-hazards” orientation for FEMA that encompasses natural disasters as well as terrorist attacks. They've also been more supportive of FEMA’s efforts to support state and local investments to reduce the likelihood or consequence of disasters before they occur. 

Democrats have generally been more inclined to argue for more expansive federal funding for preparedness and recovery than their Republican counterparts. During the Clinton Administration, Witt significantly expanded FEMA’s pre-disaster mitigation activities. More recently, current FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has resurrected the organization's all-hazards orientation and pre-disaster preparedness mandate.

The consequences of this fundamental discord over the politics of disasters for both FEMA and the nation are serious. As a result of the shifting political sands upon which FEMA is built, it has often been difficult for it to secure sustained funding to grow successful programs, attract and retain the best talent, promote a healthy culture, and develop the capacity to respond to truly catastrophic emergencies. The nation has borne the human costs of these shortcomings, as disaster survivors needlessly suffered and, in some cases, died awaiting an effective national response to disasters.

Neither party has a monopoly on good ideas, but there exists an opportunity to form consensus around a number of principles. First, there is a growing belief that disaster response must remain a local responsibility to the greatest extent possible. Second, the historical record proves that FEMA performs best when it partners with states before disasters to invest in mitigation projects and form essential relationships, as Democrats suggest. Similarly, Republicans are correct to focus on containing the seemingly limitless growth in disaster declarations and federal assistance awards since the mid90's.

As citizens across the Northeast begin the arduous work of piecing their lives together in the aftermath of Sandy, politicians from both sides of the aisle must set about the task of forging a sustainable consensus about the proper role of the Federal Government in disaster response. Too often, politicians have simply treated FEMA as a political football and avoided an honest debate about what citizens should reasonably expect from the federal government, state government, and local officials when disaster strikes.

This article originally appeared on the Truman National Security Project's Doctrine blog.