Bush Administration’s Focus on Terrorism Hampered Ability to Respond to Natural Disasters

After 9/11 FEMA Was “Absorbed By The Department Of Homeland Security.” According to the Wall Street Journal, “Created in 1979 by President Carter to manage federal responses to disasters, FEMA hit its nadir in its 1992 handling of Hurricane Andrew, when thousands went without shelter for days. The Clinton White House elevated the FEMA director to a cabinet position that reported directly to the president. But in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, FEMA has been absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security. Its reduced status has prompted criticism from state and local emergency officials that FEMA’s efforts to respond to natural disasters are being overshadowed by the department’s focus on terrorism.” [Wall Street Journal, 8/31/05]

DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff “Proposed Relieving FEMA “Of Longstanding Functions” Related To Disaster Preparedness. According to the Wall Street Journal, “The new secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, has proposed relieving FEMA of longstanding functions such as helping communities prepare for disasters with programs like building houses outside flood zones, erecting hurricane shutters and drafting evacuation routes. That would leave FEMA with only the responsibility of responding to and cleaning up after disasters — worrying some experts who say that disaster-relief officials can’t respond effectively unless they are intimately involved in disaster preparedness.” [Wall Street Journal, 8/31/05]

Former FEMA Director: Bush Wanted To “Restore The Predominant Role Of State And Local Response To Most Disasters.” According to Salon, “Instead, as Joe Allbaugh, Bush’s first FEMA director, told a congressional panel in 2001, Bush wanted to pull the federal government out of the disaster-relief business and aimed to ‘restore the predominant role of state and local response to most disasters.’ The federal government became even less involved in natural disaster relief after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when FEMA’s mission was shifted toward responding to terrorist attacks. In 2002, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security, and FEMA — which Clinton had elevated to a Cabinet-level agency — was made one department in the massive bureaucracy.” [Salon, 9/7/05]

Bush DHS Emphasized Terrorism-Related Grants To Local Governments At The Expense Of Natural Disaster Funding. According to Salon, “Of particular concern to local officials is the administration’s increasing focus on terrorism to the exclusion of natural disasters. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office showed that ‘almost 3 of every 4 grant dollars appropriated to the [Department of Homeland Security] for first responders in fiscal year 2005 were for 3 primary programs that had an explicit focus on terrorism.’ More than $2 billion in grant money is available to local governments looking to improve the way they respond to terrorist attacks, but only $180 million is available under the main grant program for natural disaster funding, Homeland Security’s Emergency Management Performance Grant program. The administration had proposed cutting that amount to $170 million, even though NEMA [National Emergency Management Association] had identified a $264 million national shortfall in natural-disaster funding.” [Salon, 9/7/05]

State Emergency Managers Complained About Loss Of Funding. According to the Wall Street Journal, “According to congressional figures, FEMA has lost control of more than $800 million in grant money since 2003 to the Office of Domestic Preparedness, another part of Homeland Security. This includes the emergency management preparedness grants, which are the only federal funds that keep the states’ emergency management offices staffed and running. The National Emergency Managers Association, which represents the country’s 50 state emergency management directors, has been complaining that those funds are no longer provided directly to them but now are routed through states’ own homeland security offices. Homeland Security officials say the grant program guidelines are sufficiently broad enough to include natural disaster training and equipment. But consultants hired by states and localities to make use of the funds say these monies are almost invariably earmarked for terrorist events.” [Wall Street Journal, 8/31/05]

PBS: “31 Of 39 First Responder Departments Agreed That Training Was Adequate For Terrorist Attacks But Not Natural Disasters.” According to PBS Newshour, “The delayed federal response prompted politicians to question FEMA’s organization and leadership. One critique was that the ‘all hazards’ preparation focused too much on terrorism. The Government Accountability Office found in July 2005 that 31 of 39 first responder departments agreed that training was adequate for terrorist attacks but not natural disasters. The report also found that almost 75 percent of grant dollars awarded by DHS for first responders in 2005 focused predominantly on terrorism training.” [PBS.org, 9/9/05]