Slate's War Stories: Katrina's Effect on FEMA

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Madeleine Brand speaks with Slate military affairs contributor Fred Kaplan about how Hurricane Katrina could affect prospects for restructuring the bureaucracy in the Department of Homeland Security. That department oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), widely blamed for confusion in post-storm relief efforts.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

All the problems with disaster relief that followed Hurricane Katrina have cast a spotlight on the Department of Homeland Security. That new mega-agency was created in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and it was supposed to improve the preparation for and response to disasters. So given Hurricane Katrina, should it be retooled or even abolished? Here with his assessment is Fred Kaplan. He writes on military affairs for the online magazine Slate.

Hi, Fred.

FRED KAPLAN reporting:


BRAND: So with the Department of Homeland Security, the focus has been on FEMA, which is under that department. It's the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And FEMA used to be a separate Cabinet-level agency. Do you think it has been weakened by being incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security?

KAPLAN: Well, I think it's been weakened to the extent that one of its missions is to prepare for and warn about natural disasters. The Department of Homeland Security's numbers one, two, three and four priorities are to deal with terrorism, and I think all other functions have dropped to the wayside. Imagine that you're a person working in FEMA at a fairly high level. Your director used to be a Cabinet officer. He used to attend National Security Council meetings; had direct contact with the president. Now he's an undersecretary in an agency where his mission is explicitly a sideshow. In the meantime, the budget for coordinating disaster preparedness with state and local units has been cut two years in a row. Affiliated agencies, like the Army Corps of Engineers--their budget has been cut. So this sort of sends you messages in half a dozen different ways that your mission has been downgraded.

BRAND: So is it a problem of the bureaucracy, the structure of this sprawling Department of Homeland Security, or is it...


BRAND: ...a problem with how it's being managed?

KAPLAN: Well, I think it's both. I mean, part of it is the structure. You've got this agency that's sort of an anomaly. At the same time, yeah, part of it is the people who are involved. You've got a director of FEMA whose last private-sector job was as the commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. I mean, just everything around--if you're working in FEMA, you get the signal that this is not being considered as a serious agency, and therefore, you don't have a lot of incentives to take it very seriously yourself.

BRAND: Several Democratic lawmakers, including Senator Hillary Clinton, have said that FEMA should be made again into its own Cabinet-level agency. Do you agree?

KAPLAN: I think it's probably a good idea. I think the Department of Homeland Security was excessively consolidated, and you know, it's funny. Initially, President Bush opposed the creation. He said, `Look, just putting another bureaucratic layer on top of a bunch of other Cabinet agencies isn't going to solve the problem.' And you know, I think to some degree I think that critique was correct.

BRAND: Well, also, the impetus behind it was to say, `Look, we've got all these disparate agencies which are getting all this information and they're not coordinated.'

KAPLAN: Right, but see, the intelligence agencies, where there was a problem of coordination before 9/11--they were not put into the Department of Homeland Security because they have enough political, economic and bureaucratic clout to resist the assimilation. So where there was a problem, they remained separate agencies, and where there wasn't that big of a problem, they were drawn into this big behemoth.

BRAND: So what is the solution? What should we do with the Department of Homeland Security?

KAPLAN: Well, I mean, you know, it's created; it's now a big thing. And I think to some extent, you know, the idea of putting things like Customs, INS and a couple of other agencies together into something called the Border and Transportation Security Directorate within Department of Homeland Security--that makes sense, I think. But something like FEMA, which has its own mandate to do many things that have nothing to do with terrorism--I think it wouldn't be a bad idea to make that into an independent Cabinet position again and to have somebody at the White House coordinating its functions and priorities with that of other agencies.

BRAND: Opinion and analysis from Fred Kaplan. He writes on military affairs for the online magazine Slate. Thanks, Fred.

KAPLAN: Thank you.

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