Does FEMA need more power?

When the next hurricane threatens to strike, how will you get the news? For that matter, will you survive? Some want to give the Federal Emergency Management Agency even more authority over disaster response than it already has, even while it struggles to modernize the country’s emergency alert system.

FEMA has gotten a virtual free pass for the last two years; since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans down in August 2005, there have been no hurricanes or other disasters of any comparable size.

Yet some claim that FEMA’s failures in responding to Katrina derive from it not having enough power under the law to accomplish its mission. Senate lawmakers are currently drafting legislation to update the Stafford Act of 1988, under which FEMA has responsibility for disaster response, which Senate staffers say does not cover catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina.

Mitchell Moss, the Henry Hart Rice Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at New York University and an investigator at the center, said of the Stafford Act, “Despite good intentions, it doesn’t work. Congress is always having to work around its limits.”

Among the limitations Moss cited, the law caps federal loans to state and local governments to offset lost tax revenue following a disaster at $5 million — a wholly inadequate figure. In 2002 and 2003, for example, New York City lost nearly $3 billion in tax revenues following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. After Katrina struck, New Orleans had to lay off almost half of its workforce — about 3,000 employees — because the city didn’t have enough cash to pay them (the law allowed the federal government to reimburse the city for employee overtime, but not for the salaries themselves).

Not only did the city face overwhelming devastation, but with its tax base destroyed it had no way to pay employees when it needed them most, Moss said.

In addition, the law prohibits federal assistance to utilities except if those utilities are publicly owned or nonprofit. This was an impediment to New Orleans regaining phone service after Katrina because in the lawless interlude that followed, BellSouth could not provide security for employees needed to maintain service, and the federal government was prohibited from assisting, Moss said. Utility workers should be considered “emergency responders” in the aftermath of a disaster or catastrophic event, he added. — Government Executive

Nowhere in the discussions, unfortunately, is any mention made of the real reason why so many people suffered and died in New Orleans. FEMA forced them to suffer and allowed them to die by, among other things, keeping out rescue workers and relief supplies, not knowing what they’re doing, and tying victims up in red tape. Oh, did I mention wasting taxpayer money?

It gets better. President Bush in 2006 ordered the Department of Homeland Security to modernize the nation’s emergency alert system, and DHS gave the task over to FEMA. Two years later we’ve seen nothing but the occasional prototype and pilot project and a whole lot of talk, but the so-called Integrated Public Alert and Warning System is no closer to reality.

The House Homeland Security subcommittee on emergency communications, preparedness and response held hearings Wednesday on the state of the IPAWS system, with subcommittee chairman Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) calling for FEMA to explain why it hasn’t fully implemented the executive order.

“We cannot do everything at once so later this year we are rolling out the first increment to support digital alerts,” FEMA assistant administrator Martha Rainville said in written testimony. “Later on, we will roll out additional increments to support risk-based alerts, non-English language alerts and alerts for special-needs communities.”

The country’s existing Emergency Alert System is an audio and text only broadcast distributed over television and radio networks. The IPAWS system would “support audio, video, text and data messages sent to residential telephones, to Web sites, to pagers, to e-mail accounts and to cellphones,” Rainville said.

Of course, if you think those alerts are coming to your cell phone any time soon, think again. Rainville said that FEMA doesn’t have statutory authority to implement parts of the system.

In a Feb. 19 filing with the FCC, less than two months before the commission adopted technical rules for the commercial mobile alert system, Rainville said FEMA lacked statutory authority during non-emergency periods to be involved with critical components of the commercial mobile alert system, including aggregator and gateway functions as well as the trust model, when warnings are issued by non-federal agencies.

In the FCC’s commercial mobile alert ruling on April 9, Chairman Kevin Martin said it would have been better if a federal entity were in place to oversee alert aggregator and gateway functions. Commissioner Michael Copps was more critical of FEMA in his statement, triggering an angry response the following day.

“It is unfortunate that Commissioner Copps chose to question FEMA’s role and responsibility without first talking with the agency’s administrator before making his provocative comments,” said FEMA in a statement. The statement said Copps mischaracterized FEMA as an unwilling partner in the process to reform the nation’s public warning system. FEMA also accused Copps of failing to mention the FEMA’s apparent lack of clear legal authority during non-emergency periods to manage the commercial mobile alert system. — RCR Wireless News

The system uses the standards-based Common Alerting Protocol internally, but no provision has yet been made to provide the data to the public.

FEMA is the agency, some people think, that somehow needs more power and authority in order to respond effectively to disasters. It seems that they’ve misused the power and authority they already had. Giving them more power and control simply will mean more misuse of power, more widespread impact of erroneous emergency messages, and more disaster victims needlessly suffering and dying.

The bitter irony of Hurricane Katrina is that fewer people would have died and New Orleans would have recovered more quickly if the federal government had not responded in any way.

Don’t you feel safe now? You shouldn’t. Forget about Homeland Security and get yourself and your family really ready for the next disaster. And stay tuned to Homeland Stupidity where storm information is posted in the sidebar each hurricane season.

One thought on “Does FEMA need more power?

  • May 25, 2008 at 7:59 pm

    By the way I love it trying to come up with a reliable system based on cell phones. In any disaster the one thing you can pretty much count on not working is the cell phone system.

    #1 It is designed to work with normal loads and even if it is working, it is automatically overloaded by the traffic generated by people checking on each other and the like in a disaster. Heck I live near a University, and we can count on all of the cell systems being down from overload for the weekends of student move in and move out. An actual disaster is ten times that bad.

    #2 Plus the cell system is dependent upon to many individual items all of which are easily damaged in about any disaster.

    #3 The media uses cell phones and other services from the cell companies and they get priority. So as soon as they show up, even if the system is up, and nobody is overloading it, they will.

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