Seven years after 9/11, the country is not only reflecting on tragedy but assessing progress in the nation’s security. One of the most notable areas where we have made progress is in preparing for and responding to threats of the natural variety.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there was no shortage of finger-pointing when it came time to assign blame for the disaster response from local, state and federal agencies. Much of it deserved. Having left the Department of Homeland Security and living back home in Arkansas again, I saw first-hand some of the tragic results of communication and coordination failures as New Orleans families, forced from their homes and destroyed neighborhoods, migrated into surrounding states like Arkansas, looking for ways to salvage their lives.
Rightly or wrongly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) took the lion’s share of the blame from both government officials and the public. Certainly FEMA made its share of errors, but there were flawed reactions at every level of government. As often happens in Washington, the matter was quickly politicized. Some members of Congress argued that FEMA should be taken out of DHS, attempting to suggest that the reorganization of the agency into the homeland security mission had somehow degraded its capabilities.
I argued against such a move at the time. I believed that, if FEMA had not performed as well as it could have during Katrina, an additional round of bureaucratic reorganization was not going to solve the problem. Instead, the agency needed to closely examine what went wrong, and why – and take action to make sure it wasn’t repeated.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and FEMA remained a component of DHS. It was given fresh leadership, additional resources and the tools to respond more effectively to the next disaster. In recent weeks, we’ve seen the wisdom of that approach, as FEMA’s preparation and response to Hurricane Gustav has been widely applauded.
While there is always more that needs to be done, the operational, communications and coordination improvements on display at FEMA is encouraging. It also reaffirms the original decision that making FEMA a part of the federal department responsible for preventing, mitigating and responding to a disaster on U.S. soil, whether natural or man-made, was the right one.
Come January, a new Administration will settle into Washington. In such times there is always an inclination for new leaders to want to make a mark and place their own stamp on government. The Department of Homeland Security will be a particularly attractive target for such reconfiguring.
I would encourage the new Administration, regardless of whether it is an Obama Administration or one led by McCain, to move thoughtfully before making significant new changes. The reactionary calls for pulling FEMA out of DHS immediately after Katrina are an example of good politics not necessarily making good policy. Such a move would have created significant new confusion within the agency and the department without having done anything to address the very real challenges that the FEMA faced.