During my stint as hazard mitigation consultant to the New Hampshire Office of Emergency Management, we had a sad but true saying: FEMA is always ready for the last disaster! Our Federal Emergency Management Agency had a track record of too little and too late, when it came to carrying out its mandated responsibilities of coping with natural disasters. As to such societal emergencies as the results of potential terrorist attacks, that was not even on the FEMA radar screen in the early 2000s. The September 11, 2001 tragedy should have changed all that, but it did not do so, as far as FEMA was concerned. We New Hampshire emergency managers sat around in our Operations Room for several days, waiting to be called to New York to help in the aftermath of that cowardly terrorist attack--which never happened, FEMA never contacted us.
Shortly after that, while still serving as hazard mitigation consultant in New Hampshire, I developed the SCOPE (Safer Communities through Organized Preventive Effort) program, in which every community in the nation would prepare its own individualized preparedness plan. The steps required to achieve that vital goal were presented thoroughly and realistically. My own agency was so positive on SCOPE that they recommended I send it to FEMA Region I, based in Boston, and I sent the program to their head of hazard mitigation, with high hopes -- which were dashed when FEMA Region I failed to even acknowledge SCOPE. For me, after the mishandling of the aftermath of 9/11/01, that was strike two for FEMA as far as I was concerned.
A few years later, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the entire Gulf Coast and submerged New Orleans, and once again FEMA proved itself unprepared to cope with both the emergency itself and its prolonged aftermath of human misery and property destruction. The incompetence of our so-called Emergency Management Agency led to a Congressional investigation, and the forced resignation of the head of FEMA, whose main credential was being a crony of George W. Bush. Fast forward to 2012, and Hurricane Sandy once more found FEMA unprepared, leading to widespread criticism from East Coast elected officials and other leaders. Those dismal failures to learn from experience might be counted as strikes three and four for FEMA.
Then, there came a ray of hope: Congress had directed FEMA to establish a National Advisory Council of distinguished emergency management specialists and other knowledgeable people who would help to guide the agency to a future which would hopefully improve on its dismal past. Upon learning of this NAC, I applied for membership, first in 2009 and then again this year. It took the better part of a year for my 2009 application to be refused, after many months of delay and many ignored email inquiries. My application included not only SCOPE, but also my Centurion Plan which would have established a national home guard for America, modeled on the style of the Israeli Home Guard. The Centurion Plan had been submitted to, and seriously considered by, the Army War College -- but never implemented for lack of funding.
What I discovered, upon reviewing the membership of the FEMA National Advisory Council, is that it consists largely of emergency management insiders, people whose lives and livelihood depend on FEMA or another comparable agency at the state, regional, local, or tribal level. There are precious-few outsiders on the NAC, and even fewer members who might be dissenters. In truth, this is the consummate pro-FEMA lobby, merely reinforcing poor, even dreadful, FEMA decisions. I am pprobably the last person in the nation who would be admitted to volunteer NAC membership.
Still, when the call for new or replacement NAC members was issued once again late in 2012, I decided to make another application; as the saying goes, Hope Springs Eternal -- and since several years had passed since my first application, I thought it was worth another round. This time, however, matters were even worse; after a form acknowledgement of my January 2013 application, I heard nothing further from the NAC during the Winter and Spring months. So, after six months had passed with zero further communication about my NAC application, I began to email first the NAC, and then the FEMA correspondence unit which is tasked with answering correspondence to FEMA, and finally the FEMA inspector general, who is tasked with investigating any and all allegations of incompetence or misconduct by FEMA organs such as their NAC. Amazingly, there was absolutely zero response to all of my communications.
You might think that this would be the end of the story -- but wait, there is more! It is also amazing what a call for a full Congressional investigation of how FEMA has violated the will of Congress, by establishing its NAC as seemingly a whitewash body of emergency management insiders, can produce speedy results at FEMA. Within a day of my senators and representative becoming involved in all of the above, the NAC Chief of Staff himself, Michael Coen, Jr., sent an email regarding my application -- which, not surprisingly, was not accepted by the NAC. It is more than clear that a strong, independent voice is neither wanted by nor accepted on the NAC.
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Were this merely an individual matter, it might be dismissed as a complaint from a disgruntled retired emergency manager whose NAC application was rejected twice. Rather, however, as the analysis above makes clear, this individual issue is only the tip of the iceberg of FEMA incompetence. Here we have an agency charged with handling all sorts of natural and societal disasters, yet that agency rejects the SCOPE plan designed to produce just that enhanced safety. Here we have an agency whose Inspector General ignores repeated demands to inspect its NAC, whose Correspondence Unit ignores much relevant correspondence, and whose National Advisory Council consists of consummate emergency management insiders rather than welcoming expert yet independent volunteer members.
Something is rotten at FEMA, whose slogan might well be: FEMA: ALWAYS TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE. The federal agency charged with preparedness before disasters, effectiveness during disasters, and mitigation after disasters, done none of these tasks well. And that is truly shameful, warranting a full Congressional investigation. America needs an emergency management agency which is competent at handling the next disasters, rather than just incompetent at handling previous ones
Eugene Elander has been a progressive social and political activist for decades. As an author, he won the Young Poets Award at 16 from the Dayton Poets Guild for his poem, The Vision. He was chosen Poet Laureate of (more...)