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Leaders Lacking Disaster Experience

Alan Perkins walks past an anti-FEMA sign put up by a resident of a tent city in Bay St. Louis, Miss.
Alan Perkins walks past an anti-FEMA sign put up by a resident of a tent city in Bay St. Louis, Miss. (By Mark Humphrey -- Associated Press)

Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said Brown has managed more than 160 natural disasters as FEMA general counsel and deputy director since 2001, "hands-on experience [that] cannot be understated. Other leadership at FEMA brings particular skill sets -- policy management leadership, for example."

The agency has a deep bench of career professionals, said FEMA spokeswoman Nicol Andrews, including two dozen senior field coordinators and Gil Jamieson, director of the National Incident Management System. "Simply because folks who have left the agency have a disagreement with how it's being run doesn't necessarily indicate that there is a lack of experience leading it," she said.

Andrews said the "acting" designation for regional officials is a designation that signifies that they are FEMA civil servants -- not political appointees.

Touring the wrecked Gulf Coast with Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff yesterday, Vice President Cheney also defended FEMA leaders, saying, "We're always trying to strike the right balance" between political appointees and "career professionals that fill the jobs underneath them."

But experts inside and out of government said a "brain drain" of experienced disaster hands throughout the agency, hastened in part by the appointment of leaders without backgrounds in emergency management, has weakened the agency's ability to respond to natural disasters. Some security experts and congressional critics say the exodus was fueled by a bureaucratic reshuffling in Washington in 2003, when FEMA was stripped of its independent Cabinet-level status and folded into the Department of Homeland Security.

Emergency preparedness has atrophied as a result, some analysts said, extending from Washington to localities.

FEMA "has gone downhill within the department, drained of resources and leadership," said I.M. "Mac" Destler, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. "The crippling of FEMA was one important reason why it failed."

Richard A. Andrews, former emergency services director for the state of California and a member of the president's Homeland Security Advisory Council, said state and local failures were critical in the Katrina response, but competence, funding and political will in Washington were also lacking.

"I do not think fundamentally this is an organizational issue," Andrews said. "You need people in there who have both experience and the confidence of the president, who are able to fight and articulate what FEMA's mission and role is, and who understand how emergency management works."

The agency's troubles are no secret. The Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit group that promotes careers in federal government, ranked FEMA last of 28 agencies studied in 2003.

In its list of best places to work in the government, a 2004 survey by the American Federation of Government Employees found that of 84 career FEMA professionals who responded, only 10 people ranked agency leaders excellent or good.

An additional 28 said the leadership was fair and 33 called it poor.

More than 50 said they would move to another agency if they could remain at the same pay grade, and 67 ranked the agency as poorer since its merger into the Department of Homeland Security.


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