Homeland security in a perfect storm

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In the days to come, as the nation and the people along the Gulf Coast work to cope with the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, we will be reminded anew how important it is to have a federal agency capable of dealing with natural catastrophes of this sort. This is an immense human tragedy that will work hardship on millions of people. It is beyond the capabilities of state and local government to deal with. It requires a national response.

Which makes it all the more difficult to understand why, at this moment, the country's premier agency for dealing with such events - FEMA - is being, in effect, systematically downgraded and all but dismantled by the Department of Homeland Security.

Apparently homeland security now consists almost entirely of protection against terrorist acts. How else to explain why the Federal Emergency Management Agency will no longer be responsible for disaster preparedness? Given our country's long record of natural disasters, how much sense does this make?

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I offer this obituary for what was once considered the preeminent example of a federal agency doing good for the American public in times of trouble such as now:

FEMA was born in 1979, the offspring of a number of federal agencies that had functioned in an uncoordinated manner to protect the country against natural disasters and nuclear holocaust. FEMA grew and matured, with formal programs being developed to respond to large-scale disasters and with extensive planning for what is called "continuity of government."

The creation of the federal agency encouraged states, counties, and cities to convert their civil defense organizations into emergency management agencies that would do the requisite planning for disasters. Over time, a philosophy of "all-hazards disaster preparedness" was developed that sought to conserve resources by producing single plans that were applicable to many types of events.

But it was hurricane Andrew, which hit Florida in 1992, that really energized FEMA. The year after that catastrophic storm, President Bill Clinton appointed James Lee Witt director. He was the first professional emergency manager to run the agency. Showing a serious regard for the cost of natural disasters in both economic impact and lives lost or disrupted, Mr. Witt focused FEMA on natural disaster preparedness and mitigation. In an effort to reduce the repeated loss of property and lives every time a disaster struck, he started a disaster mitigation effort called "Project Impact." FEMA was elevated to a cabinet-level agency, in recognition of its important responsibilities coordinating efforts across departmental and governmental lines.

Witt fought for federal funding to support the new program. At its height, only $20 million was allocated to the national effort, but it worked wonders. One of the best examples of the program's impact here in the central Puget Sound area and in western Washington was in protecting people at the time of the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. Homes had been retrofitted for earthquakes and schools were protected from high-impact structural hazards. The day of that quake ironically was also the day that the new president chose to announce that Project Impact would be discontinued.

The advent of the Bush administration in January 2001 was the beginning of the end for FEMA. Bush-appointed leadership of the agency showed little interest in its work or the missions pursued by Witt. Then came Sept. 11 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Soon FEMA was being absorbed into that.

This year it was announced that FEMA will lose the disaster preparedness function that it has had since its creation. The move is a death blow to an agency. In fact, FEMA employees have been directed not to become involved in disaster preparedness functions, since a new directorate (yet to be established) will have that mission.

FEMA will be survived by state and local emergency management offices, which are confused about how they fit into the national picture. That's because the focus of the national effort remains terrorism, even if the Department of Homeland Security still talks about "all-hazards preparedness." Those of us in the business of dealing with emergencies find ourselves with no national leadership and no mentors. We're being forced to fend for ourselves, making do with the "homeland security" mission. Our "all- azards" approaches have been decimated by the administration's preoccupation with terrorism.

To be sure, America may well be hit by another major terrorist attack, and we must be prepared for such an event. But I can guarantee you that hurricanes like the one that ripped into Louisiana and Mississippi on Monday, along with tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, windstorms, mudslides, power outages, and fires will have to be dealt with far more often, and throughout the country. They're coming for sure, sooner or later, even as we are, to an unconscionable degree, weakening our ability to respond to them.

Eric Holdeman is director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management. ©2005 The Washington Post.

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