At the start of the hurricane season in June, media outlets shocked the public with computer-generated images of New York City streets being swept by torrents of ocean water. Though it was pretend stuff, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials assured the pulic that they were well prepared to handle a big disaster.
A few weeks later, FEMA Director David Paulison told reporters that the federal government can and will act quickly and decisively in the event of another Hurricane Katrina-type debacle.
No federal agency has been battered harder than FEMA for its Katrina fiasco. Paulison aimed to bury that criticism and history. At first glance, he has a case — in the months since Katrina, FEMA has made a dizzying array of changes.
It revamped its communication systems, upgraded its Web sites, streamlined claims processing, speeded up inspections and improved disaster coordination efforts with state and local officials. It pledged that all disaster housing repair and rebuilding contracts would be subject to the bid process — a major sore point. Last year, FEMA had taken much-deserved public heat for awarding no-bid contracts worth millions to four big contractors with close ties to the Bush administration.
FEMA made the changes under extreme duress. And while they are much needed, they don't guarantee that things will be any different if a big one hits again.
The agency is still plagued by money problems, staff shortages, a penchant for waste and its total dependency on the political whims of the Homeland Security Department. Its patchwork $5 billion budget is nowhere near enough to pay the massive costs of housing repair, relocation and relief aid for the thousands that a Katrina disaster would displace.
In April, a Government Accounting Office report that businesses and relief recipients had scammed FEMA for millions to spend on such "necessities" as expensive massages and tattoos ignited more public fury.
Then in early August, Mississippi NAACP officials publicly charged that hundreds of Katrina victims were living in FEMA trailers tainted with formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Despite the complaints, it took the agency months to agree to make inspections.
In the past, much of FEMA's chaos and confusion was blamed on Bush's singular obsession with the war on terrorism. This resulted in the massive shift of millions in funds and personnel from disaster relief to Homeland Security. The priority change mortally crippled FEMA's efforts to deal with disaster relief.
Even if FEMA were an independent, well-oiled, disaster-battling machine that was flush with cash, it would still likely fall apart in the face of a titanic disaster. FEMA must have the firm backing of the White House to act fast to deal with or head off a crisis. That didn't happen in the hours before Katrina hit.
An embarrassing video released by the Associated Press in February showed that President George W. Bush ignored warnings from then-FEMA Director Michael Brown that the New Orleans levees could crack. There was no plan for the evacuation of residents, the speedy dispatch of disaster aid or the deployment of the National Guard. A year later, that lesson is still lost. Louisiana state officials were livid at Bush in July when he struck key recommendations from an Army Corp of Engineers report for short-term repairs on the levees.
A disaster of the colossal magnitude of Katrina will almost certainly overwhelm any single government agency. Yet FEMA is still the agency that everyone looks too to cope with disasters. It bungled Katrina, and if another disaster that scope strikes, it could bungle it again.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a columnist for www.blacknews.com.