How FEMA Got It’s Groove Back

Business Week compares the very different FEMA responses after this spring’s tornado binge and Hurricane Katrina:

That accumulated experience stands in marked contrast to the background of Michael Brown, a former official at the International Arabian Horse Assn. who headed FEMA in Katrina’s aftermath. “When you put a professional emergency manager” in the top FEMA spot, “it’s a quantum level of performance than when you have a political” appointment, says James Carafano, a director at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Fugate has what he describes as a “Waffle House” theory of emergency management to assess how bad a situation is after a disaster. “If the Waffle House is open and serving food and has got a full menu, then it’s green,” he said during an interview inside a FEMA mobile home parked outside a fire station in Joplin. “If the Waffle House is open but has a limited menu, it’s yellow, and if the Waffle House isn’t open, that’s red.” (Joplin’s local Waffle House survived.)

Fugate has recruited former state directors at the agency, who deal directly with their regional counterparts, says Barry W. Scanlon, a former FEMA official who’s president of Witt Associates, a Washington-based disaster-management consultant. Because of their past experience, the FEMA managers are sympathetic to the state officials and don’t take a “top-down, ‘this-is-the-way-it’s-got-to-be’ approach,” he says.

Prior to Katrina, as mandated by law, FEMA would wait to receive a governor’s formal request for help before swinging into action. Under Fugate and his predecessor, David Paulison, FEMA staffers now show up ahead of any formal request for help. Fugate also works closely with local companies affected by disasters.

Hard to believe that putting professionals, that know what they are doing, in charge of agencies instead of handing the jobs to people who made political donations makes a difference in the results.

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