Katrina & Beyond

Woes at Embattled FEMA Spur Employee Exits

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The FEMA command center i

The FEMA command center in Washington, D.C., Aug. 30, 2005, shortly after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
The FEMA command center

The FEMA command center in Washington, D.C., Aug. 30, 2005, shortly after Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
Bill Carwile

Bill Carwile, in an October 2005 photo taken before he retired from FEMA. Days after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, the head of hurricane response in Mississippi e-mailed FEMA headquarters: "System appears broken." Mark Wolfe/FEMA hide caption

toggle caption Mark Wolfe/FEMA

FEMA is having trouble holding on to its best people. Several FEMA staffers have told NPR that people are leaving because the agency is in trouble and no one appears to be addressing the problems. These departures are raising concerns about FEMA's ability to respond to the next disaster.

Leo Bosner, a union chief and manager of the emergency operations desk at FEMA, says morale was bad Katrina, but it's only gotten worse. He notes there have been several retirement parties at the agency in recent weeks.

"They're getting out not because they're tired and want to work in the garden but because they're just sickened by the agency's failure — very public failure — and just sickened to see nobody doing anything to lift a finger to fix the problems," Bosner says of the departing employees.

According to half a dozen other current or former FEMA managers who did not want their name used for fear of retribution, more than 50 people have left FEMA in the past four months. One official inside FEMA who has seen the agency's attrition data says 56 people have left in the past five weeks alone.

But FEMA says only 20 people have left. FEMA spokesman Nicole Andrews says the information Bosner and other employees shared with NPR is either incomplete or imprecise. She says there's an influx of applications to work for the agency, adding, "To suggest that there is any sort of a trend related to Katrina and attrition would be absolutely false."

One recent retiree is Bill Carwile, a 10-year veteran of FEMA and former Army colonel who left in November. Carwile led FEMA's hurricane response in Mississippi.

Katrina struck New Orleans and the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29. Three days into Katrina recovery operations in Hancock County, Miss., Carwile couldn't get any food, water or even body bags. "System appears broken," he wrote in an e-mail to FEMA headquarters. Carwile says it was the worst moment of his FEMA career.

The exhaustion frustration he felt in Mississippi wasn't the only thing pushing him to retire. Carwile says he was upset watching FEMA's training programs get cut year after year, leaving his teams unprepared.

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