DEFENSE Department officials have testified against it. Professional emergency managers are opposed to it. Even so, it is at some level perfectly understandable that President Bush has begun, as he stated this week, to think about giving the Defense Department a larger role in responding to large-scale domestic disasters -- even changing the law to make that possible. The scenes of chaos in New Orleans that followed Hurricane Katrina about five weeks ago were not a great advertisement for the competence of civilian emergency response planners. The bitter and contradictory congressional testimony of former Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael D. Brown, the New Orleans mayor and the Louisiana governor do not speak well for the virtues of state, federal and local cooperation under the current system. By contrast, the military looks well-equipped, well-organized and efficient.
The president should listen to the professionals nevertheless -- and not only because, as one Defense Department official recently put it, "what we ought not to do is convert DOD into a department of first responders." The point of having a domestic emergency management agency, after all, is to be able to respond to all emergencies, including those that don't merit military intervention. And it is by doing so -- by working with local officials and charities, by using emergency communications systems, and by making the professional connections that will be necessary -- that federal emergency officials prepare themselves for catastrophes. It's also true that there are limits to what the military can do in a civilian context: Volunteer doctors and rescue workers are not going to respond to orders in the way that the Army expects people to respond. Yet many of the resources needed to recover from a disaster, from hospitals to construction companies to power suppliers, are in the private sector. The possibilities for conflict are no less than in the current system.
The correct response, in the wake of hurricanes Rita and Katrina, is not to bring in the military to do FEMA's job but to fix FEMA. Of course, the agency's civil servants are demoralized: Their role has been downgraded, their agency has been robbed of funding and they have been led by unqualified political appointees. As we have written before, there isn't much point now in moving FEMA back out of the Department of Homeland Security. But within that department, FEMA could play a bigger role. The agency should be seen as the place to send the ambitious and talented, not the place to park political hacks. Those who do a good job, on those smaller disasters, should be paid well and promoted, not left to languish.
This isn't an impossible dream. For a few years in the late 1990s, FEMA prospered under dynamic leadership. Before altering the law so that the military can acquire yet another task, it might be worth thinking about what went right back then.