ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
FEMA is having trouble holding onto its best people. NPR has learned that since Hurricane Katrina there has been a spate of retirements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Several FEMA staffers have told NPR that people are leaving because the agency is in trouble and that no one appears to be addressing the problems. As NPR's Laura Sullivan reports, these departures are raising concerns about FEMA's ability to respond to the next disaster.
LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:
The last time we heard from FEMA's Leo Bosner was shortly after Katrina hit. Bosner is a union chief and a manager of the emergency operations desk. He was sounding the alarm about the lack of urgency at FEMA headquarters the weekend before the storm. But now he's deeply concerned about something else.
Mr. LEO BOSNER (Federal Emergency Management Agency): If you went down there in the last few weeks at FEMA you would see just sign after sign announcing all these retirement parties--oh, a retirement party for Karen, a retirement party for Clyde, retirement party for Bill. In one case, they were doubling them up. They had one sign with the retirement party for two guys because they were both retiring the same day.
SULLIVAN: Bosner says in the past four months the agency's best people have been leaving in droves. He says morale was pretty bad before Katrina, but since then it's only gotten worse.
Mr. BOSNER: They're getting out not because they're tired and want to work in the garden but because they're just sickened by seeing the agency's failure, very public failure, and sickened by seeing nobody doing anything, lifting a finger, to fix the problems.
SULLIVAN: According to Bosner, and a 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 spokeswoman Nicole Andrews says the information Bosner and the other employees shared with NPR is either incomplete or imprecise. In fact, she says, there has been an avalanche of interest in working for the agency.
Do you think that there's an attrition problem at FEMA? Do you see people leaving FEMA?
Ms. NICOLE ANDREWS (FEMA Spokeswoman): No, absolutely not. What we're seeing is an increase in interest in working for the agency and an influx of applications. And to suggest that there is any sort of a trend related to Katrina and attrition would be absolutely false.
SULLIVAN: In a cursory round of phone calls, NPR came up with the names of 39 people who have either retired or quit. One of them is Bill Carwile. He's a 10-year veteran of FEMA and former Army colonel who left in November. Carwile was FEMA's top guy in charge of the agency's response in Mississippi.
Mr. BILL CARWILE (Former FEMA Employee): Oh, I tell you. I spent two tours in Vietnam, saw a lot of devastation there. I've been in super typhoons in the Pacific, the Florida hurricanes, other hurricanes. I've never seen anything as devastating as Hurricane Katrina along the coast of Mississippi. I've never seen anything like the total devastation of entire communities and their infrastructure.
SULLIVAN: Carwile is not well-known but his e-mails are. Three days into recovery operations in Hancock County, Mississippi, Carwile couldn't get any food, water or even body bags. He sounded despondent when he wrote to headquarters, `System appears broken.' Carwile says it was the worst moment of his FEMA career.
Mr. CARWILE: The coroner was getting more and more bodies into the morgue there and they were running out of places to put people. And they were running out of body bags. They were running out of refrigerated places to put people. And we couldn't get a reefer truck to put people in, and I basically authorized--took an ice truck and told--can I take--you know, get the ice out of there and put people in there. And that was probably the most frustrating day.
SULLIVAN: Carwile is now in Hawaii spending time with family and feeding the birds in his back yard. He says the exhaustion and frustration he felt after Mississippi wasn't the only thing pushing him to retire. He says he was upset watching FEMA's training programs get cut year after year, leaving his teams unprepared.
Mr. CARWILE: If you've ever been to a military parade and everybody steps off their left foot exactly the same time and everybody's lined up, the only way they're able to do that is practice, practice, practice.
Professor PAUL LIGHT (New York University): I would say that at this point in history FEMA is the worst place to work in government.
SULLIVAN: Paul Light is a professor at New York University and has studied FEMA and the federal government for 25 years. He watched FEMA grow from an obscure chaotic department in the 1980s into a powerful well-run agency in the late 1990s.
Prof. LIGHT: What's amazing about FEMA is that the turnaround was so quickly voided. That is amazing to me to think that this agency five years ago was a destination of first choice for new employees and only five years later has become a destination of last resort. It's just surprising that after all that work this agency was undone so quickly.
SULLIVAN: Light says it's not just that people are leaving the agency. Many jobs are vacant. The agency has more than 200 full-time and temporary openings, including the top job. In 2005, the non-profit Partnership for Public Service asked employees to rate their own government employers. FEMA ranked 143rd out of 200 or so government agencies. Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke says FEMA has had a rough six months and he acknowledges that morale could be better. But, he says, retooling the agency is one of department Secretary Michael Chertoff's top priorities.
Mr. RUSS KNOCKE (Homeland Security Spokesman): There are thousands of dedicated, hard-working career employees in FEMA who have really endured one of the most difficult storm seasons in our history. The secretary is deeply committed to ensuring that for the next hurricane season they have all of the resources and support that they can possibly have.
SULLIVAN: The current and former FEMA employees that NPR spoke to, including Bill Carwile and Leo Bosner, are hoping to see those improvements.
Mr. BOSNER: We're still not seeing training. We're still not seeing people getting replaced. We're still not seeing the budget to do what we have to do. We're still not seeing any improved planning for catastrophic incidents like Katrina. So some people are just throwing in the towel.
SULLIVAN: Attrition is not a new issue to FEMA. According to the Office of Personnel Management, which keeps track of government employees, FEMA has been losing more and more people for the past three years. In 2005, 10 percent of its work force left. That's almost twice the government average. Many employees are worried that that trend could be even worse this year. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.