The FEMA Disaster: Politics, Patronage and Privation


PA Times Vol. 29, No. 8, 2006, page 4

Reprinted in National Fire and Rescue magazine, Sept/Oct,2006, pp. 22, 66


Mark Daniels



            During testimony before a US House of Representatives committee, Former FEMA Director Michael Brown gave lawmakers a lesson in federalism.  Brown expressed his perception that FEMA is only a coordinating agency for state and local emergency responses.  “We don’t own fire trucks, we don’t own ambulances,” he explained.  Brown’s comments suggested that FEMA’s meltdown was partly a result of the politics of federalism.

            By the 1960's federalism was viewed symbolically as a “picket fence.”  The pickets represented policy areas (education, transportation, housing, and so forth) and the horizontal boards that held the pickets upright were the three levels of government (national, state and local).  One researcher, William Waugh, has described FEMA under Witt’s leadership as an example of “picket fence federalism.” For example, during Hurricane Floyd in 1993, Witt called every governor and every member of Congress in each of the states affected on the weekend preceding the storm.  He set up video conferencing with all of the hurricane - risk states, talked to mayors, and asked them to talk to their governors about their needs.  FEMA helped to evacuate 4 million people before the flooding from the Hurricane could get to them.  According to one FEMA employee, acting preemptively, even before the governors could request assistance, was not permitted by the law, “but when was the last time Clinton obeyed the law?” the employee joked.

            Under the most recent era of federalism, the “devolution revolution,” recent Presidents have returned policy initiatives back to state governments in a fashion consistent with Michael Brown’s explanation of what went wrong during Hurricane Katrina.  Brown explained that he was waiting for Governor Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana and Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans to act and request assistance from FEMA, and that the emergency management agencies at the state and local level did not function well. When his poor performance was compared with the response of Rudy Guiliano after the September 11th World Trade Center attacks, Brown responded by rhetorically asking, “So I guess you want me to the be the superhero, to step in there and take everyone out of New Orleans?” Brown continued: “Guess what, FEMA doesn’t own fire trucks; we don’t own ambulances; we don’t own search and rescue equipment.  In fact, the only search and rescue or emergency equipment that we own is a very small cadre to protect some property that we own around the country.  FEMA is a coordinating agency. We are not a law enforcement agency.”  Brown was right and wrong.  FEMA doesn’t own fire trucks, but there were federal assets not used during Katrina.  The Interior Department offered FEMA 500 rooms, 119 pieces of heavy equipment, 300 dump trucks and other vehicles, 300 boats, 11 aircraft and 400 law enforcement officers.  The delay in obtaining a request for help from the governor and mayor should not have prevented Brown from moving ahead quickly to bring federal assistance to the disaster area if he had been operating within a cooperative, picket fence federalism model. 

            FEMA’s meltdown during Katrina was also a result of unqualified patronage appointments and a privation of performance.  Although the early emergency management directors were civilians, with the election of President Ronald Reagan, this shifted to political appointees.  FEMA became known during this period as a dumping ground for political appointees with little experience.  FEMA became crowded with more than 30 political appointees, filled by mid to lower level political operatives: for example, a campaign advance man, or a regional political organizer.  Of course, political appointees who are qualified for their appointments can be valuable assets to the bureaucracy.   Within FEMA, regional directors have to work with mayors, county executives and boards, and governors and politically appointed directors possess a political comfort level they can bring with them to the job. As Robert Maranto has observed, “in a political system politicians tend to be better at politics.” The issue is not so much patronage, but the qualifications and ethics of those selected for political appointment. FEMA descended into scandal during the Reagan administration, and in response, the director and top aides resigned.  FEMA’s poor response to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 was followed by an even worse response to  Hurricane Andrew in 1992 in which 61 people were killed and 160,000 people were left homeless along with $26.5 billion in damages.  FEMA’s poor response led Senator Ernest Hollings to call FEMA top executives “the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses.” 

The election of Bill Clinton ushered in a new era in FEMA history. President Clinton appointed James Lee Witt as Director, an appointment based on Witt’s experience as Director of Emergency Management in Arkansas, and his appointment was considered one of the success stories in the Clinton administration.  President Clinton also elevated the Director of FEMA to a cabinet level position, and FEMA became more collaborative and cooperative and embraced aspects of total quality management. Often referred to as the Witt Revolution, Witt’s tenure with FEMA witnessed sweeping reforms including customer service training, mitigation, risk avoidance and strengthened relations with local and state emergency managers.  In contrast, President George W. Bush’s first Director of FEMA was Joe Allbaugh, campaign manager of the 2000 Presidential race.  Allbaugh’s previous experience included an appointment as Oklahoma’s Deputy Secretary of Transportation, and service as Chief-of-Staff to Governor George W. Bush.  With Allbaugh’s departure from FEMA in 2003, Michael Brown, FEMA’s Legal Counsel, was appointed Director.  Brown’s qualifications were exclusively political: he knew Allbaugh from Republican politics in Oklahoma. Brown ran unsuccessfully for the US House of Representatives in 1988 (he received 27% of the vote), was Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association, and became counsel to FEMA when President Bush appointed Allbaugh in 2001.  Brown resigned after the Hurricane Katrina controversy, and the Bush administration nominated a replacement, R. David Paulison, who had solid credentials: Paulison was by training was a fire fighter, and was formerly Chief of Miami - Dade Fire Rescue and President of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. 

What has happened to FEMA’s former directors?  Joseph Allbaugh became a lobbyist for no-bid reconstruction contracts in Iraq and obtained a $100 million no-bid contract for the Shaw Group to pump water out of New Orleans.  Michael Brown now works for an emergency management consulting firm, and briefly considered becoming a paid consultant to St. Bernard Parish, a New Orleans suburb hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, a move that led the New Republic to satirically award him the “Brass Cojones of the Year.”

            FEMA’s performance problems were due to a nostalgic, ideological embrace of an intergovernmental relations federalism model that undermined the cooperation among national, state and local governments during emergencies and disasters.  At the same time, the Bush administration abandoned the best practices model of the Clinton Administration and allowed FEMA to once again employ marginally qualified, minor political operatives who destroyed the morale of career employees, drove career employees to early retirement, and were human obstacles when action had to be taken to save lives during our nation’s greatest natural disaster.  In order to become an effective organization, FEMA needs to conduct a purge of its unqualified patronage appointees, be moved from HSA and have a director with cabinet rank, and return to a picket fence approach to federalism and intergovernmental relations. 


Mark Daniels is Professor and Chair of Political Science at Slippery Rock University, and is a member of the Graduate Faculty of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, teaching in the Ph.D. Program in Administration and Leadership Studies in Harrisburg.