FEMA Let Reserves Wither, Hurting Response, Some Say

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 26, 2005

The Thursday after Hurricane Katrina hit, Eileen Thaden received a call from the Federal Emergency Management Agency: Could she be at the airport within an hour?

The 45-year-old Anne Arundel County resident had been expecting the call ever since she had signed up a year earlier to be a disaster assistance employee -- part of the surge force that the government has long relied on for extra manpower in emergencies.

Thaden had the desire and the skills to help. She had lost her own home in Hurricane Isabel, and she had spent two days at a FEMA training program where she learned how to assist other disaster victims. But now, faced with one of the largest disasters in U.S. history, she could not go.

Because of a bureaucratic foul-up she had been trying to resolve for months, FEMA had never issued her the special credit card that is the lifeline of any reservist. "I couldn't help," she said, "because they couldn't get their act together."

Although it is not known how many others are in Thaden's predicament, her experience showcases a reserve force that has been allowed to wither from inattention in recent years, according to former and current agency employees and outside experts. Its decline, they say, has contributed to the government's slow response to Katrina and has kept FEMA personnel stretched to the limits as the agency grapples with the aftermath of Hurricane Rita.

With a regular workforce of just about 2,500 full-time employees, the nation's lead disaster-response agency is not designed to have the personnel in-house to manage a disaster. The reservist program is intended to give it the ability to double or triple in size overnight by adding men and women who become, for as long as the disaster lasts, federal employees.

The reservists perform many of the same tasks as full-time FEMA workers, with each receiving training in a specific job, such as helping to run disaster response centers, inspecting damage, manning telephone hotlines, assisting victims with claims, and coordinating relief activities with state and local officials.

Historically, the reservist ranks have been heavily populated by young people who want to make money helping out in a time of crisis and retirees -- especially ex-government employees -- whose schedules allow them to walk away from their lives for weeks or months at a time.

Besides their training, reservists submit to fingerprinting and a background check and swear to uphold the Constitution. Each is paid based on a scale linked to education and experience levels.

In past emergencies, they have been at the heart of FEMA's response.

"If you were a disaster victim, you probably never met a FEMA employee. They were all [reservists]," said George Haddow, the agency's deputy chief of staff in the Clinton administration.

A FEMA budget fact sheet for fiscal 2005 listed its full-time staff at 2,511 and its "disaster staff" at 2,265. A FEMA spokeswoman said the reserve force numbered 5,000, though the agency did not respond to other requests for information about the force's use and trends in its size.

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