WASHINGTON—Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown, who on Friday was sent back to Washington, is the poster boy for what's gone wrong with an agency once lauded for its lightning reflexes.
The nation's federal disaster agency has been politicized and dismantled over the past four years and Brown is a symptom of that transformation, said disaster- and government-efficiency experts.
The Bush administration has filled FEMA's top jobs with political patronage appointees with no emergency-management experience, cut disaster-preparedness budgets and marginalized the agency by merging it with the new anti-terrorism bureaucracy, according to those experts, which include four former senior FEMA officials. The number of career disaster-management professionals in senior FEMA jobs has been cut by more than 50 percent since 2000, federal personnel records show.
And late Friday, FEMA made another embarrassing change.
The agency said it would stop handing out its $2,000 debit cards to families displaced by Katrina, opting instead to give out money to victims by direct deposit into bank accounts or having the post office mail them checks, said agency spokesman Butch Kinerney.
Thousands of the cards were handed out in mass shelters in Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.
"It was successful, but it was never designed to be a big nationwide program," Kinerney said. Expense and logistics prevented it from going nationwide, but it may be used later in the future, he said.
Jane Bullock, who was FEMA chief of staff during the Clinton Administration, said she couldn't believe the agency was killing one of the few "great ideas" that came out of the Katrina response.
"They don't recognize that right now most people would be happy to be handed $100 in cash to buy food and water and medicines," Bullock said late Friday. "It's just getting worse and worse. It's like imploding."
Most criticism focused squarely on Brown and the changes at the agency he runs.
New York University Public Service professor Paul C. Light described how Brown "has become a symbol of what's wrong with FEMA, and ultimately he has to go. ... The real problem here is at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with the appointments process. It's the people who decided to put him in place and put all those politicals in place."
George Haddow, a former FEMA deputy chief of staff under President Clinton and the co-author of an emergency-management textbook, called what happened in the last four years the "deconstruction of the most robust emergency management and effective response system in the world."
Under attack for possible resume padding and the agonizingly slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina, Brown remains FEMA chief, but he was replaced Friday as the on-scene hurricane relief coordinator by a Coast Guard admiral with a can-do reputation.
Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who's been the No. 2 official on the ground in Louisiana, is now in charge of Katrina recovery. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who wouldn't let Brown answer charges of resume padding at a press conference on Friday, said: "Michael Brown has done everything he possibly could to coordinate federal response to this challenge."
Brown, who before coming to FEMA had been a lawyer and Arabian horse association official, was accused of inflating his claims as assistant manager of Edmond, Okla., first by Time magazine. Brown even highlighted his experience as "assistant city manager" in a 2004 speech in Florida.
Andrew Lester, a friend and his attorney, said Brown's resume "is absolutely accurate."
But Randel Shadid, a former mayor of Edmond who was on the city council when Brown worked there, said he believes Brown was an assistant to the city manager.
John Copenhaver, a regional FEMA director during the Clinton administration and president of a large nonprofit that trains business leaders to handle disaster, said the larger issue "is what has happened to FEMA."
In 2000, 40 percent of the top FEMA jobs were held by career workers who rose through the ranks of the agency, including chief of staff. By 2004, that figure was down to less than 19 percent, and the deputy director/chief of staff job is held by a former TV anchor turned political operative.
Former Reagan administration FEMA Director Gen. Julius Becton Jr. said the agency has become too political and should be run by a nonpolitical appointee.
Of the top 15 FEMA spots in Washington, the only people who had experience or have a single permanent job—some employees of FEMA are holding down two positions—are the agency's top lawyer, its equal rights director, its technology chief and its inner-agency planning chief. None of them is responsible for disaster response or preparations.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigating arm of Congress, summarized the agency's history this way:
"The agency's performance during hurricanes and an earthquake in the late 1980s and early 1990s generated intense criticism and raised doubts about its ability to respond to disasters. `FEMA,' South Carolina Sen. Ernest Hollings said after Hurricane Hugo in 1989, was `the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever known.'
"In the wake of congressional investigations, President Bill Clinton in 1993 appointed James Lee Witt, who ran emergency management in Arkansas, to head the embattled federal agency," the GAO report said. "Witt is widely credited with turning FEMA into a model for disaster response."
Just before FEMA was merged into the new Department of Homeland Security in 2003, insiders said problems were sure to develop.
"There are concerns of FEMA losing its identity as an agency that is quick to respond to all hazards and disasters," Acting FEMA Inspector General Richard Skinner wrote in a December 2002 memo.
Becton said FEMA's recent budget cuts for disaster preparedness may have cost people's lives.
"Anytime you make a decision that it (disaster preparedness) costs too much, then you have people who die," said Becton, who was FEMA's chief from 1985 to 1989.
(Matt Stearns of The Kansas City Star, Chris Gray of The Philadelphia Inquirer and Alison Young of the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau contributed to this report.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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