FEMA: high marks from Congress as it juggles crises

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Like a circus juggler with three balls in the air and more being tossed his way, the federal government's year-old emergency management team is dealing briskly with a summer full of Cuban refugees, Mt. St. Helens victims, Love Canal evacuees, and Americans set back by flooding, tornadoes, and riots.

And thus far, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has received good marks from Congress for its performance under unprecedented pressure.

The agency is headed by John Macy, a low-keyed, silver-haired career civil servant who jokingly describes himself as "the master of disaster." In the past year, Mr. Macy has organized previously scattered functions such as civil defense, flood control and insurance, fire fighter training, earthquake research , and a variety of others into a 2,400-person agency that has had a key role in Washington's response to recent domestic events.

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But the price of emergency response has not been cheap. Already in fiscal 1980, the federal government has spent $1.1 billion to help disaster victims. An additional $1.75 billion has been requested to aid state and local governments scrambling to deal with a Washington State volcano, south Florida refugees, Nebraska tornadoes, Louisiana floods, Michigan storms, and a Texas drought. In normal years, federal disaster aid does not exceed $200 million. But this could be the most costly year for the US since 1973, when tropical storm Agnes ran up a $2.5 billion repair bill.

Some congressional critics are beginning to wonder, moreover, if Washington's ready response to emergencies is not causing governors to cry "disaster" too quickly. President Carter was criticized by some lawmakers for designating Miami a disaster area because of the Cuban refugee influx. The disaster label, says Sen. Quentin N. Burdick (D) of North Dakota, should be applied only to natural disasters.

The federal emergency budget would quickly be drained, and the Disaster Relief Act of 1974 misused, if the Carter administration were to carry its broad view of disasters to its logical conclusion, says an aide to the senator.

Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R) of New Mexico warns that federal largess to the governors can be abused in a political year. Senator Burdick probably will propose a more limited definition of disaster when the 1974 act is reauthorized this summer.

Mr. Macy disagrees that the government is being too broad with its emergency aid.

Increasing societal interdependence, the regional nature of many disasters, and often, federal culpability -- all demand a federal response, Mr. Macy says. FEMA's role, he points out, is not to command other federal agencies and private relief groups, but to coordinate their work.

"Over time, as our society becomes more complex, and the consequences of emergencies become more severe, they have transcended the capability of the private citizen, the local, county, or state government to provide the necessary response to it. There are also some emergencies -- those of a national security nature -- that are brought about by actions of government, and government has an obligation to assist, to assure that there is a concern for their safety, and to devise plans to deal with an emergency," Mr. Macy says.

In March, prior to the rash of emergencies, FEMA trained 35 of its personnel are new federal coordinators. This allowed the agency to "deal with simultaneous events and at the same time keep the other programs moving along," Mr. Macy explains.

A large part of the agency's time is spent "thinking the unthinkable," says Mr. Macy, "planning for emergencies of all kinds, all the way from a nuclear attack to terrorist conditions, to civil disorder."

Earthquake preparedness and "continuity of government" in the event of war have been under study recently. A "command post" complete with wall maps, teletype machines, and a "secure area" is being set up in the building in northwest Washington occupied by FEMA.

"Ours is an expanding range," Mr. Macy admits. "As new hazards where there's any potential federal involvement come out, this becomes a part of our concern.Part of our problems is that we must utilitze our resources in accordance with our top priorities. But we don't do all of this ourselves. Our purpose is to represent the President in assuring that within the federal government these particular hazards are of concern."

Civil breakdown that could result from a riot or from a situation such as the New York transit strike could cause FEMA to become involved. But Mr. Macy says such involvement would be "very reluctant."

"In the riots of the '60s, there was no way to deal with the aftermath," Mr. Macy says. "President Johnson usually would set up an ad hoc structure. He would call in Cyrus Vance, who would set up a command post, and various agencies would work with him. Now the President has the option of utilizing this agency as his instrument."

Is there a danger that federal response can be too quick? In the love Canal evacuations, the chromosome study that sparked FEMA into action has since been called into question. Did the response sharpen the crisis?

"The decision there was to give the people the option of going to temporary housing," Mr. Macy responds. "So really it was a limited state of emergency accompanied with the decision to proceed with further medical examinations to determine what the true health conditions were."

Even after a disaster moves off the front pages, FEMA and other agencies have an obligation to offer long-term assistance. Some congressmen have criticized delays in processing at the Cuban refugee camps and also the time it takes to approve disaster aid loans. Mr. Macy attributes this in part to problems in getting funding requests through Congress quickly.

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