Regarding FEMA, the Times notes:
The agency’s core budget, which includes disaster preparedness and mitigation, has been cut each year since it was absorbed by the Homeland Security Department in 2003.
The agency’s staff has been reduced by 500 positions…
Three out of every four dollars the agency provides in local preparedness and first-responder grants go to terrorism-related activities
Another portion of the piece goes to the heart of the discussion Steven Taylor and I have been having in the comments about the relative roles of state (and local) vs. federal agencies.
Under the law, [Homeland Security Secretary Michael ] Chertoff said, state and local officials must direct initial emergency operations. “The federal government comes in and supports those officials,” he said,
which drew the following response from Jane Bullock, former FEMA chief of staff:
The moment the president declared a federal disaster, it became a federal responsibilityâ€¦. The federal government took ownership over the response.
The Times story has a brief overview of the history of federal involvement in disaster relief, noting that it was largely nonexistant until 1972 and ad hoc until the directorship of James Lee Witt. During the Clinton years, Witt had FEMA take a very proactive role in assisting communities in preparing for floods, earthquakes, and other disasters.
However, this role for FEMA was not institutionalized and thus would not carry over to a new directorship:
But with the change of administration in 2001, many of Witt’s prevention programs were reduced or cut entirely.
Then, after 9/11, there was a change in the institutional role of FEMA, when it was subsumed within DHS:
After Sept. 11, former FEMA officials and outside authorities said, Washington’s attention turned to terrorism to the exclusion of almost anything else.
As I alluded to in the September 1 post linked above, an “attack by nature” is every bit as much the kind of crisis demanding federal attention as an attack by an invading army or terrorists. 9/11 did not make hurricanes or earthquakes less likely, and post-9/11 changes to the way FEMA as an institution relates to the rest of the executive branch are under a severe test right nowâ€”a test they seem to be failing.