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Michael D. Brown Headshot

The Audacity of Hindsight Could Help FEMA

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Last Thursday while we were still engulfed in the attack at Fort Hood, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved legislation removing the Federal Emergency Management Agency from the Department of Homeland Security, returning it to independent, Cabinet-level status if approved. See H.R.1174. Ironic that a few days after a terrorist attack occurs on U.S. soil a House committee takes action which would enhance the Nation's ability to respond to and recover from a disaster, whether natural or man-made.

Most telling in the announcement of the passage of this bill was Congressman John Mica's statement that "The Department [of Homeland Security] has bled FEMA dry of resources, personnel and authority to manage a large disaster. Elevating FEMA as an independent agency will ensure a clear and direct chain of command from the president." The wisdom of that statement is significant. Congressman Mica and the House Transportation Committee members (Democrat & Republican) acknowledge the inherent ways of Washington by making this bold move.

Senator Lieberman continues to espouse the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act as solving all of FEMA's problems. Nothing could be further from the truth nor more disingenuous as to how Washington works. The post-Katrina act made superficial changes to FEMA's structure and exacerbated the matrix approach to management that hinders DHS and FEMA from operating effectively.

The matrix approach taken by Congress in the post-Katrina reform act had the unintended consequence of further embedding the problems that stymied me during the response to Hurricane Katrina. The best example of the matrixed organization is Abbot & Costello's Who's on First. Play it in your mind and you get the gist of the confusion within DHS, between DHS and FEMA, and between state, local and federal agencies during Hurricane Katrina.

In a matrixed-structured organization under the post-Katrina act, the FEMA Administrator is subservient to the DHS Secretary throughout the year. The FEMA Administrator must work through the huge bureaucracy of DHS to get budget approval, authorization for personnel, funding for projects, and even the attention of the Secretary. The FEMA Administrator during "normal" times (i.e. other than during a disaster) must answer to and be accountable to the DHS Secretary, not the President.

To give you some perspective, the FEMA Administrator and his approximately 2,500 employees must fight for resources, funding, personnel and attention in DHS when his operation at FEMA accounts for only 0.01% of the Department's personnel. FEMA has 2500 employees (give or take) versus 200,000 (give or take) in DHS. The FEMA Administrator's CFO, for example, is accountable to both the FEMA Administrator and the DHS CFO and the DHS Undersecretary for Management. That is a matrixed organization in a nutshell. Multiple bosses, conflicting priorities, divided loyalties.

In Washington wisdom, though, that matrixed structure is to be ignored during times of crisis or disaster. Yes, the boss to whom you've groveled and cajoled for funding and resources suddenly is answerable to you when a disaster strikes because now you report directly to the President of the United States. Suddenly, a cabinet member must take direction from you while you step in and report directly to the Commander in Chief. Most egos in Washington can't handle that kind of whiplash. I know those that stood between me and President Bush during Hurricane Katrina couldn't take that whiplash.

Susan Collins is just naïve when she says removing FEMA from Homeland Security would "ignore the input of first-responders and unravel all the impressive gains made in recent months since we passed our FEMA reform law." No one wants to hear that their baby is ugly, but in this case, Senator Collins, your baby is ugly, and has done nothing to correct the systemic problems in FEMA. Only be removing the organization from the DHS behemoth and giving it a direct line to the President, which worked amazingly well from 1979 until 2005, will we have FEMA back to its heyday.

No one in Washington will admit its baby is ugly because in Washington, you can never admit a mistake, or take a step that might be seen as a reversal. In this case, the House Transportation Committee has the audacity of hindsight and is moving forward. Let's hope Washington for once will correct its mistake and just do what's right.