Is FEMA its own disaster area?

Two newspaper reports suggest that the agency's troubles began long before Katrina struck -- and that they haven't gone away.

Published September 19, 2005 12:26PM (EDT)

To hear much of official Washington tell it, the government's inability to respond to a natural disaster blew into town with Hurricane Katrina and left every bit as quickly. Like water overtaking levees and planes crashing into buildings, the problems couldn't have been anticipated -- and then they all went away as soon as a tough-talking lieutenant general from the Army and an "action-oriented" vice admiral from the Coast Guard cracked the whip and got everyone in line.

But two newspaper reports over the weekend suggest that the problems with the Federal Emergency Management Agency didn't start when Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and didn't end when Michael Brown left.

On Sunday, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel published the first of its findings of a study of 20 recent natural disasters. The paper's conclusion: FEMA's mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe is "only the latest bungling in a national disaster response system that for years has been fraught with waste and fraud." The Sun-Sentinel found that, over the last five years, FEMA has paid out at least $330 million in areas that were "spared the devastating effects of fires, hurricanes, floods and tornadoes."

We don't know if FEMA is giving money to people who don't need it in the Gulf Coast, but it does seem that the agency is still having a hard time getting help to those who do. The New York Times reported over the weekend that evacuees and local and federal officials agree that FEMA is still "faltering" in its efforts to aid the victims of Katrina. "The problems clearly stem largely from the sheer enormousness of the disaster," the Times said. "But the lack of investment in emergency preparedness, poor coordination across a sprawling federal bureaucracy and a massive failure of local communication systems -- all of which hurt the initial rescue efforts -- are now also impeding the recovery."

William Lokey, the FEMA coordinator for the region, said the agency's problems stem from a lack of money and what have proved to be, at least at the moment, misplaced priorities. "If the billions of dollars that have been spent on chemical, nuclear and biological response, if some of that had come over here, we would have done better," Lokey told the Times. "But after 9/11, the public priority was terrorism."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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