FEMA Veteran Decries Agency's Storm Response

Jane Bullock, a career employee of the Federal Emergency Disaster Agency, says the federal response to the storm was the worst she's seen in 22 years on the job. She tells Scott Simon a major mistake was a failure to have boats, helicopters and other resources in place early enough.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

FEMA was created in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter and the Congress to give the government an authorized federal response to disasters--hurricanes, tornadoes and even terrorist acts that often strike several states at once. Jane Bullock was a 22-year career employee of FEMA. She served as chief of staff for almost eight years for James Lee Witt in the Clinton administration, but also served in Republican administrations. She joins us in our studios.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. JANE BULLOCK (Disaster Consultant): A pleasure to be here.

SIMON: From this distance, how do you assess FEMA's response?

Ms. BULLOCK: This is the worst federal response to any disaster I have ever seen in my career at FEMA and outside of FEMA.

SIMON: List some of the things that you've noticed.

Ms. BULLOCK: Well, I think the largest mistake was the fact that they did not predeploy resources early enough. They knew the hurricane was coming. The president had actually declared it a disaster on Saturday, the 27th. By his doing that, it meant that FEMA could tap into the resources of the entire civil and military parts of government and predeploy assets to the area. For example, if there had been a military predeployment, there would have been boats and other vehicles to evacuate people. There would have been logistical support to take food and water into the Convention Center where there was none. There would have been all sorts of other assets, including backup communications, put in place.

SIMON: Are any of the reasons why that wasn't done clear to you?

Ms. BULLOCK: Actually, no. I believe that there are several reasons things didn't happen. Number one, inexperienced people leading the disaster, and that's actually extremely important because disasters are the largest logistics and the largest human function of government. The system is focusing on terrorism instead of focusing on all the risks that we face, and because of that, the emergency management system that was built in the '90s does not exist anymore. It has been deconstructed.

SIMON: Was there confusion between who did what and local governments and federal governments?

Ms. BULLOCK: Scott, I think that's a very good question. When even looking at it on TV, the question I had was, `Who's in charge? Is it Michael Brown? Is it Secretary Chertoff? Is it the governors or the mayor?' In fact, the system that was in place was a system that worked together. FEMA worked with our state and local partners before the disaster to get ready, to predeploy, to prepare, and then during the disaster to be responsive to their needs, but also to help them in areas they might not have expertise.

SIMON: Such as?

Ms. BULLOCK: Such as when we looked at the evacuation, perhaps the mayor could have asked for the evacuation to occur earlier, but FEMA could have also been there, the federal government could have been there saying, `Mayor, we think we can help you. We think we need to move now. We think we need to get military assets like Zodiac boats down there to get people out.' You know, during the 1990s we had a very major hurricane, Hurricane Floyd, and we evacuated over a million people successfully.

SIMON: After September 11th, FEMA was folded into the Department of Homeland Security.

Ms. BULLOCK: Correct.

SIMON: And we should recall there were legislators from both parties who voted in favor of that. How do you assess that idea now?

Ms. BULLOCK: Well, even at the time, I was highly critical because you only have to look at the main mission of the Department of Homeland Security is the prevention of terrorism, and most of its resources, the INS, TSA, are four or five or 10 times larger than this very small little agency, FEMA, that was an independent agency. As an independent agency, FEMA had direct connection to the president. It had the clout to actually task the other secretaries in the Cabinet to bring resources to the table and to actually deploy and work in disasters. It has clearly lost its stature. At the same time its stature was being lost, its resources were being taken away--both people and dollars--to go to other higher-priority areas in the Department of Homeland Security. That same thing happened at the state and local level, and that's why we saw failure at all levels in this disaster.

SIMON: As you take a look at what happened, this must pain you. You must know a lot of people back at the agency.

Ms. BULLOCK: Yes, it does, and I will try not to get emotional. I cannot tell you how many of my friends from the agency have called me and said, `We're trying to do something, but they won't issue the orders for the resources to go out.'

SIMON: Who is the who in that `they'?

Ms. BULLOCK: The leadership of the agency, Michael Brown, Secretary Chertoff, other responsible officials did not get the supplies there, did not get the predeployed troops there, did not get what needed to be done. And they're still being very slow. I think that we have to look at this disaster as a huge failure of our contract with our citizens.

SIMON: Jane Bullock, who was a 22-year career employee of FEMA, and is now a disaster consultant. Thank you very much.

Ms. BULLOCK: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: To hear NPR's detailed report on what went wrong with the response to Hurricane Katrina, you can come to our Web site, npr.org.

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