WASHINGTON -- When Bill Carwile heard that some guy in New Jersey was complaining that the federal government hadn't helped him during Superstorm Sandy -- "Where the hell's FEMA at?" the man demanded -- Carwile hit the roof.
A bear-like 68-year-old with big hands and a booming laugh, Carwile runs disaster response operations at FEMA. Over a lifetime of wading into typhoons, tsunamis, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and lesser calamities from Florida to Guam, he has won a reputation for taming chaos with calm assurance. He avoids political rhetoric, distrusts big government, treasures hands-on innovation. In emergency management circles he is spoken of with reverence. But this was too much.
"Somebody should ask that guy, have you talked to anybody from your church? Seen anybody from your county? From your city?"
"What is it that makes people think the federal government should take control of their lives?" he wondered with a touch of bemused exasperation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, he said, has "become a generic name for 'nobody's solved our problem.'"
It's a common misperception with which Carwile has grappled for decades -- and over the past four years at FEMA, one that he's done the most to fix. He started with the recognition that in disasters, FEMA -- the federal government -- is not in charge. The state governors are. No chain of command runs from the White House down to the rubble. What gets done, gets done only if the governors ask for specific help. That's according to the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, preserving states' rights. Trouble comes when FEMA tries to behave as if it is in charge.
Carwile knew from a lifetime of working disasters that lots of others outside government can help. Using a tactic he'd learned four decades ago as a Special Forces soldier in Vietnam, Carwile and his colleagues engaged what they called "the whole community" in planning for and responding to disaster.
That meant linking churches, neighborhood associations, representatives of the disabled, Walmart store managers and UPS trucking routers to county police, local fire and rescue folks and volunteer groups, as well as the traditional county and state emergency managers, along with FEMA and other federal agencies.
Over the past few years, FEMA and these groups have worked together to figure out what kinds of disasters might strike locally, and if they did, what would need to be done, and by whom. Even the public was invited to join in via smart-phone apps.
When Hurricane Sandy devastated thousands of communities from North Carolina to Maine to West Virginia, FEMA and all its partners in the "whole community" concept were put to a severe test. As stunned residents dug out from the wreckage, there were cries of praise for the combined federal-state-local response -- and passionate cursing from those who felt abandoned.
But now, eight weeks later, a more comprehensive assessment of FEMA's strategy is possible, and the consensus seems to be that FEMA's performance, while not perfect, has been a far cry from its humiliating collapse seven years ago during Hurricane Katrina.
A common view comes from Al Bunting, administrator of the small New Jersey coastal village of Sea Girt. A picturesque oceanfront residential and vacation spot, Sea Girt saw its boardwalk smashed and some of its historic homes damaged in the storm.
"We've been pleased" with FEMA, Bunting said. "They've been cooperative, agreeable and communicative within their own construct," he added in a phone interview Friday, even as three FEMA officials were again walking the streets of Sea Girt, going door to door making sure residents had gotten the help they needed.
But Bunting, a retired Air Force colonel, also endorsed the idea at the core of FEMA's "whole community" effort. "We're not laying down waiting for the federal government to come in," he said. He singled out the state and county for praise, and his local volunteer fire department and other volunteers. Everyone together, he said, "has exceeded expectations."
COMMUNITY RELATIONS AGENTS
Even before the storm waters had receded from wrecked homes along the coast, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie -- a Republican who'd been no fan of either "Big Government" or President Obama -- enthused on NBC's "Today" show that "the federal government's response has been great." FEMA, he said, was "excellent."
Until recently, for instance, private businesses and everybody else outside the federal government worked in isolation during disasters, often making things worse.
During Katrina, convoys of Walmart trucks carrying badly needed water were turned away by FEMA from New Orleans. $100 million worth of ice went astray as far as Maine. A New Orleans hotel hired buses to evacuate its guests, but the buses were confiscated by FEMA. Commercial offers of aircraft to fly in medical supplies and evacuate survivors went ignored by FEMA. Some federal stockpiles of food, tarpaulins and other emergency supplies were being handed out for free from parking lots of hardware stores struggling to stay in business. FEMA officials couldn't talk to one another and didn't know what was needed, or where.
"Overwhelmed," is how Michael Chertoff, then the secretary of homeland security, described FEMA during Katrina.
This time, when Sandy hit, things were different. The collaboration of a "whole community" of players, as FEMA describes it, had produced a comprehensive plan that outlines local, state and federal responsibilities in a disaster -- down to exacting details. During a year of planning, for instance, organizations which work with the elderly had told FEMA that the cots ordinarily delivered to emergency shelters were so low that it was difficult for the elderly to use them. As Sandy struck, thousands of higher cots were standing by for delivery.
Inside FEMA's emergency operations centers sat officials from nonprofit community agencies, representatives from communities of persons with disabilities and religious organizations. Hotlines connected FEMA with its new National Business Emergency Operations Center, a virtual meeting place where emergency operations managers and logistics experts at places like Walmart and Target and UPS coordinated with FEMA, state police and the Red Cross.
At one point, heavily loaded Walmart trucks headed to New York with emergency generators exceeding state weight limits. That potential problem, which might have stalled the convoys for days, was cleared up in a heartbeat by a quick consultation with state officials, Walmart officials said.
Another innovation came with the "whole community" strategy. FEMA has long had a roster of "reservists," mostly retired folks who could be called up to serve in emergencies to augment FEMA's modest standing workforce of about 5,600 people nationwide. FEMA is now finishing an overhaul of that system, having trained, tested and certified tens of thousands of volunteers, many of them former firefighters or military. FEMA can access a digital roster of these individuals, matching those with specific skills to specific needs.
During Sandy, for instance, FEMA mobilized retired county disaster relief officials to come east to relieve exhausted county officials in New York and New Jersey. Other reservists were mobilized as community relations agents like the three walking the streets of Sea Girt. The reservists mobilized for Sandy included Kay Kimler, a 55-year-old police officer and former stunt woman from Ashville, N.C., and Chuck Schmincke, 64, a retired Coast Guard officer, both with extensive disaster experience. Just this month, FEMA persuaded the White House to authorize federal health benefits for activated FEMA reservists.
The job of community relations agents was to walk through distressed communities talking to survivors, urging people to get registered for FEMA assistance and reporting unmet needs back to local disaster recovery centers. There, the requests for help were being fielded by church and volunteer groups, rescue and emergency medical personnel, and representatives of town, county and state governments along with FEMA, the Small Business Administration and other federal agencies. These centers were set up and paid for by FEMA, but they report to the state governor.
The disaster recovery center in Belmar, a town up the coastline from Sea Girt, was crowded one Saturday in November with teens and college-age youth who'd seen on Facebook that volunteers were needed. At a card table, two women volunteers from the community were fielding requests from local families for help -- pumping out a basement, or raking away debris -- jotting each address on a card and handing the card to volunteers. They were told to pick out tools from a pile of donated shovels, mops, buckets and cleaning supplies, and to check back in when they were done.
"We definitely see the 'whole community' concept working," said Mark Cooper, director of emergency operations for Walmart. "Before this, there wasn't much coordination with the private sector. But having all the players involved in planning, the less government has to spend." The federal government, he added, "can't do as much as in the past as we assumed it would."
It wasn't just the "whole community" concept that has helped improve the federal government's disaster response since Katrina. FEMA and Congress collaborated on a host of legal and structural changes. For instance, early presidential emergency declarations allowed money and people to begin moving days before Sandy struck. (By contrast, among the many federal failures during Katrina, the initial White House emergency declaration failed to include Louisiana's coastal parishes that were hardest hit -- and it wasn't until four days after the storm submerged much of New Orleans that President Bush signed an emergency relief package.)
This time, the early White House action activated FEMA's National Response Coordination Center in Washington and FEMA liaison teams, which fanned out before the storm hit to state emergency operations centers from Maryland to Vermont, providing advice on federal assistance and to unsnarl red tape. FEMA's emergency communications teams also deployed out ahead of the storm, setting up 85 FEMA radio networks that connected emergency operations centers with fire and rescue units, truck convoys and satellite links, which provided internet connections for disaster officials and for storm survivors.
FEMA also stockpiled emergency supplies and used military aircraft and trucks to haul food, fuel and water, coordinating with Walmart, Target, UPS and others to avoid duplication with commercial traffic.
In New York and New Jersey, state task forces corralled state, county and local government officials with volunteer organizations, FEMA and federal housing, small business and defense agencies to work just on emergency, temporary and long-term housing. Survivors registered with FEMA could apply for money to pay for short-term hotel stays, rental units or emergency repairs to their existing homes. Local churches and volunteer agencies worked up lists of available housing -- a task no federal agency could accomplish. As of mid-December, 507,951 people had registered and FEMA had paid out $1.09 billion in emergency aid to 162,000 families.
In Belmar, 10 days after the storm, a woman whose home was battered but livable had already received a check from FEMA for emergency repairs to her heating system. "You're from the federal government?" she asked incredulously, standing in her doorway in a bathrobe when David Jones, "semi-retired" firefighter from Dover, Ark. and mobilized as a FEMA reservist, came to see if she needed anything else. She declined to give her name to a reporter, and she admitted she has often complained about "big government." But she positively gushed about the federal help she'd received after the hurricane. "Thank you -- you're doing great work -- thank you!" she kept calling out as Jones left.
FEMA also stockpiled trailers for use as temporary shelter, and has been criticized for not making them more widely available. But FEMA officials point out that because the states are in charge, FEMA cannot unilaterally move in trailers unless they are specifically requested. State officials have focused more on emergency repair aid to enable families to stay in their existing homes.
A related problem is that many coastal communities have laws either prohibiting mobile homes, or requiring specific pads and utility hookups which vary from town to town. "You can't just go put a trailer anywhere," said Chris McKniff, a FEMA official working in New Jersey.
REASON AND DIGNITY
In all this response, of course, there were glitches, as New Jersey's Christie hasn't hesitated to point out.
"Believe me, over the last 40 days we have had plenty of conflicts with FEMA at the state government level," he said at a Dec. 14 press conference. "This is not unusual. We’ve been through these before. We’re going to continue to stay on them.” He said he'd called FEMA directly to get things fixed, rather than just complaining. "I like to do this in private, so I actually get it done," he said.
Carwile likes to work that way, too: behind the scenes. His is not the public face of FEMA. That would be Craig Fugate, the FEMA administrator, who is another old hand at disasters. Fugate is a familiar presence on Capitol HIll and the Sunday talk shows. He and Carwile came to appreciate each other 20 years ago when Fugate ran disaster response for the state of Florida and Carwile was one of FEMA's regional troubleshooters. In 2004 they worked together during an intense six-week period when four hurricanes struck Florida, and they worked together during Katrina, when Carwile was in charge of disaster response in Mississippi.
Carwile chuckles now at the notion that he quit FEMA in a fit of anger over its performance during Katrina and the disarray within the agency. After 9/11, FEMA was dismembered and its pieces were distributed within the new Department of Homeland Security, a move widely credited with its inability to cope with Katrina. Angry or not, Carwile did quit.
"I was probably not overly enthusiastic about some of the things that had been done, the way the [George W. Bush] administration dealt with things down on the Gulf coast," Carwile told The Huffington Post. Eventually, Congress put the FEMA pieces back together and gave its administrator new powers and new resources. In 2009 Fugate called Carwile back from retirement in Hawaii to reorganize disaster response for FEMA.
Carwile had done two combat tours in Vietnam as a Green Beret village adviser, and had quickly learned that to defend the community against marauding Viet Cong, he'd have to help organize the whole community of local Vietnamese -- army soldiers, militiamen, farmers, housewives, political and religious leaders and schools. It worked.
Back at FEMA, he knew he could use that same idea. "The resources of America -- they're not in government," he said in an interview in Washington.
"There are a lot of people in this town -- I know it's kinda hard to believe -- who think that only the central government is in charge," he said. "If people sit around and wait for government to do stuff, it takes time. But neighbors helping neighbors? The private sector helping survivors? That works a lot better." Much of that kind of work was already going on at the local level, Carwile said. "We didn't make this stuff up -- we just gave it a name," he said: whole community.
Carwile grew up in the oil patch between Tulsa, Okla., and Dallas and served in the Army for 30 years. He rose to the rank of colonel and commanded a brigade. He retired in 1996 and went to work for FEMA, carefully avoiding service at headquarters in Washington. Now, after his second stint with FEMA, he's ready to retire again and will do so in January.
"He has brought a lot of reason and dignity and integrity to every discussion I've been involved in," said Jim Mullen, director of emergency management in the state of Washington. He said the concept of "whole community" has been done on a local level for years. "What Bill did was to encourage it and bring it to the national level," he said. "He's one of those unique individuals; he's done some remarkable things."
"He understands everybody's role, and that his job is really about supporting those who actually are in charge," said Mike Walker, who was FEMA deputy director in the late 1990s. "He has built relationships and is trusted, and in the past history of FEMA, there just hasn't been a lot of trust."