The first barrage in the White House campaign to revise reality about the administration’s failure to respond to last week’s hurricane disaster is to float the idea that there is a “blame game” going on between federal and local officials, or rather, between Republicans in Washington and Democrats in Louisiana. They’re going to have trouble blaming the hobbling of FEMA on the Democrats however, in light of these facts:
The Federal Emergency Management Agency once speedily delivered food, water, shelter and medical care to disaster areas, and paid to quickly rebuild damaged roads and schools and get businesses and people back on their feet. Like a commercial insurance firm setting safety standards to prevent future problems, it also underwrote efforts to get cities and states to reduce risks ahead of time and plan for what they would do if calamity struck.
But in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, FEMA lost its Cabinet-level status as it was folded into the giant new Department of Homeland Security. And in recent years it has suffered budget cuts, the elimination or reduction of key programs and an exodus of experienced staffers.
The agency’s core budget, which includes disaster preparedness and mitigation, has been cut each year since it was absorbed by the Homeland Security Department in 2003. Depending on what the final numbers end up being for next fiscal year, the cuts will have been between about 2% and 18%.
The agency’s staff has been reduced by 500 positions to 4,735. Among the results, FEMA has had to cut one of its three emergency management teams, which are charged with overseeing relief efforts in a disaster. Where it once had “red,” “white” and “blue” teams, it now has only red and white.
Three out of every four dollars the agency provides in local preparedness and first-responder grants go to terrorism-related activities, even though a recent Government Accountability Office report quotes local officials as saying what they really need is money to prepare for natural disasters and accidents.