Morale at the Federal Emergency Management Agency is probably as low as it can get.

Hurricane Katrina punched FEMA with a vengeance. The boss is gone, employees are working long hours and saddened by the loss of life and destruction, and the agency is on the verge of becoming a laughingstock.

"We're kind of at a tipping point," said Leo Bosner, president of the American Federation of Government Employees local at FEMA headquarters.

How employees feel about FEMA -- and whether they stick with the agency in the wake of Katrina -- may hinge on the next steps taken by Michael Chertoff, Homeland Security secretary, and Congress, which seems likely to debate whether to return FEMA's independence.

Yesterday, R. David Paulison, the acting FEMA director, sent a memo to employees praising them for their response to Katrina. "You have had the additional burden of hearing much criticism of the agency," he wrote. "Criticism such as this makes doing your job even more difficult than it already is. However, like the true professionals you are, you have kept this agency focused on its mission."

FEMA, of course, has been buffeted by controversy in the past, but Bosner said that this time the mood is different. "It's harder for people to hold their heads up now," he said.

John Gage, president of AFGE, said FEMA has suffered from "incompetent management," adding that "the thing that irritates me is that federal workers take a hit on this."

A senior career official at FEMA said employees are dedicated to helping disaster victims and willing to work with the party in charge but believe that political appointees should be approved for top agency jobs only if they can show extensive experience in crisis management and emergency preparedness. The career official spoke on condition that he not be identified because of fear of retribution.

A decline in morale among FEMA employees has been captured in snapshots over the past few years.

In a 2003 survey of federal employees, FEMA ranked last among large agencies in worker satisfaction. Today, the Partnership for Public Service and the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation will release their list of "Best Places to Work" in the government, and the Department of Homeland Security, which absorbed FEMA, is next to last in the rankings -- No. 29 out of 30 large agencies.

Homeland Security employees gave low marks to their leaders in such areas as policies and practices, resources to get the job done and fair treatment, data used for the ranking show.

Related issues were aired 12 years ago in a study by the National Academy of Public Administration titled "Coping With Catastrophe." The study called for a "reduction of political appointees to a director and deputy director, development of a competent, professional career staff and appointment of a career executive director."

The NAPA study said eliminating political appointees at FEMA would help "to assure that future leaders are qualified and trained for their jobs."

Although FEMA's standing and morale improved during the Clinton administration, employees began to feel out of the loop during the Bush administration, the career official said. Decisions were made behind closed doors, and any sense of teamwork between political appointees and experienced employees disappeared, the official said.

Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center in Boulder, Colo., said FEMA lost experienced employees after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks for various reasons.

Some employees felt they were viewed as Clinton administration carryovers and not welcome in the Bush administration; some employees felt they could no longer do their jobs; and some employees were ready to leave and found opportunities in the private sector because of a demand for homeland security expertise, she said.

When FEMA was merged into Homeland Security, many FEMA employees felt they no longer counted because they saw law enforcement as the "cutting edge," Tierney said. FEMA employees believed they were losing funds and responsibilities, she added.

Homeland Security, meanwhile, viewed FEMA as failing to grasp "the new realities" and slow to embrace the administration's agenda, she said.

Once again, Tierney said, FEMA needs to be studied and improved. "We need an independent look, that the public will trust, at what we are doing in this country about protecting our society from extreme events," she said.