Official Argues FEMA Has Been Weakened

Debbie Elliott talks with Eric Holdeman, the director of the King County Office of Emergency in Washington State, who says the war on terrorism has jeopardized federal ability to plan for natural disasters.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Eric Holdeman directs the King County Office of Emergency in Washington state. He says FEMA has been weakened in the past four years.

Mr. ERIC HOLDEMAN (Director, King County Office of Emergency): The FEMA that's responding today is not the same FEMA we had four or five years ago just in quality and quantity of experienced people being available. This is not to denigrate the good work that's being done by FEMA employees now on the ground. I'm sure they're getting a couple of hours of sleep a night and they're doing the best possible work they can.

ELLIOTT: Why are they crippled?

Mr. HOLDEMAN: The way I look at it is we had the 9/11 attacks, we had the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security, and FEMA became part of that department. And unfortunately, I think we've thrown all our resources for the last three, four years totally into terrorism and counterterrorism preparedness. A pretty telling comment: We have to track how we spend our time day to day, and four years ago, we were spending 75 percent of our time on disaster preparedness; planning, training and disaster exercises. That's down to less than 25 percent in the first six months of this year, and the other 50 percent, it's gone to grant administration.

ELLIOTT: There seems to be an assumption that if you prepare for a terrorist attack that you'll also be prepared for a natural disaster. Do you think that's the case?

Mr. HOLDEMAN: There is a kernel of truth in there, but I can tell you all the bomb robots, protective suits, chemical decontamination units we have purchased--and will be useful in a terrorism event--is not what we need for a hurricane, it's not what we need for an earthquake.

The other piece of this--and I hope I'm not jumping ahead on your questions here--is that FEMA's been the traditional federal agency we've planned, trained and exercised with in the past. And past few years, I've had no reason to talk to or work with FEMA. They have been taken out of the game, and now they're supposed to be--officially, those duties of planning, training and exercising before the disaster given to a separate agency, and they'd only be responding and recovering to them. And separating those things is incredibly difficult to do. I use the example of the Super Bowl, that we have a member of the team who's going to show up on game day that we've never practiced with, planned with or scrimmaged with, and then you expect to have an effective and efficient game plan when you get out there on the field and start responding. It just doesn't happen that way.

ELLIOTT: We've heard the mayor of New Orleans complaining about several problems: a lack of communication ability between authorities on the ground, some chain-of-command issues. Do you think these are issues because there isn't that planning and disaster preparedness interaction going on between the federal, the state and the local officials?

Mr. HOLDEMAN: It's hard for me to comment being many hundreds of miles away. You know, this is not `beat up on the Department of Homeland Security.' They have done some good things. There is a national response plan that they're using to respond to this event. There's a National Incident Management System which is supposed to describe how federal, state and local officials work together there. But you know, we have no one on the ground in the regions to work with us on defining all that. The Department of Homeland Security has not set up regional offices in the nation. So while there are still 10 FEMA regions, there isn't a Department of Homeland Security regional office, and when they set up a preparedness directorate, it's going to be in the other Washington 3,000 miles away, and you aren't going to build the type of collaboration to needed to solve problems that we're seeing experienced there today.

ELLIOTT: Eric Holdeman is director of the Office of Emergency for King County in Washington state.

Thank you for being with us.

Mr. HOLDEMAN: Thanks for having me on the show, and everybody should get that disaster preparedness kit together today.

ELLIOTT: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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