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A Study of Concerns Regarding FEMA and Their Disaster Response Preparedness

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In the context of disaster preparedness and response, how do you think the state and local governments can balance their preferences/interests with those of the federal government?

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August 29, 2005 is a day to remember for the citizens along the gulf coast, especially those in New Orleans, Louisianna. Residents of Louisianna were unaware of the severity and drastic nature of the hurricane, leading the citizens, local, state, and national governement unprepared for one of the costiest and deadliest hurricane in United States history. The storm produced winds from one hundred to one hundred and forty miles per hour, causing an estimated 108 million dollars in damage, a storm surge of twenty-feet high and a death rate of an estimated 1,836 people. The chaos that resulted lead to a shift of blame between powers at all levels of government, causing there to be no plan of action or chain of command and no one to hold accountable.

Hurricane Katrina was an obstacle that the general populace thought both the national and state governments were prepared for however unbenounced to them this resulted in being the largest catastrophe since the 1920’s. The people of New Orleans realizied the help they desperately needed would not come quickly. New Orleans needed a leader to get them the help they needed so they immediately looked to the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin. Nagin stepped in and called the National Guard, but after six days of waiting, the people were running out of resources, such as food as water; he later called the Louisiana state governer, Kathleen Blanco. With the National Guard’s Louisiana headquarters underwater and unavailable, Blanco reached out to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was established in 1971 after a series of natural disasters swept the nation. This agency was founded to prepare states and cities for national disasters, how to prevent them, how to manage them, and assistance in recovering from these devastations. Blanco and Nagin pleaded for support from FEMA yet their cries for help were unanswered. Nonetheless, FEMA did arrive, but unprepared. While doing press, Nagin explictly blamed the national government for not doing their duties of protecting and assisting the people. FEMA fought back with claims that Nagin and Blanco were unprepared and failed at listing everything they needed for the community. The unitary system they believed they had in place was deteriorating. The state blamed the national government for not sending them the aid resulting in the national government blaming the state for not being prepared; the people of New Orleans were suffering and nobody was assisting.

Since the creation of FEMA, there had never been a definite set of protocols and no set chain of command that people could follow in times of emergency. Through all the turmoil Katrina caused there was a complete lack of accountability and blame was tossed around endlessly. On the federal government side, President George W. Bush made the mistake of appointing someone with no experience as the director of FEMA. This was often done because at the time FEMA was not taken seriously and people who got the job of director only achieved the title through political favors. James Witt, the first FEMA director with experience, came up with Project Impact which focused on prevention by working with the communities to prepare for disasters. Not long after Witt had put into effect Project Impact did President Bush cut the program, reduce funding for FEMA, and moved FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security. Witt ended up leaving FEMA shortly after all this occurred and once again, President Bush appointed someone with no experience as the new director. Overtime FEMA got lost in the Department of Homeland Security and as a result started to weaken and lose significance. Michael Brown, whom was the director of FEMA at the time of Katrina stated that the federal government could not take control of the situation because the state was in control.

One issue that the state brought up was the lack of evacuation procedures. The state claimed it was the federal government’s responsibility, the federal government said it was the state’s responsibility; neither knew that evacuation protocols were a shared responsibility between both the federal and state governments. Brown was unaware of this because like others before him, he was appointed director of FEMA without having any experience. Days prior to Katrina state and local officials knew they were not prepared however they were not proactive and no provisions were made in anticipation of the storm. Instead, Katrina made landfall and caused unexpected chaos which then led to state and local officials turning to the federal government for help.

A key problem during Katrina was the lack of communication. New Orleans had attained grant money so that they could establish interoperability back in 2003, however it kept getting put off and was not made a priority. Had New Orleans established this system when the money was received thousands of lives could have been saved. Interoperability would have lead to better communication between local, state, and federal government officials. Better communication between all three levels of government could have helped to establish a chain of command, and a person to hold accountability which would have provided knowledge on how to better handel the situation. If each level of government – federal, state, and local – took responsibility for their own short comings instead of accusing each other the true issues would then be exposed and a solution could be reached.

As a result of hurricane Katrina, precautions have been put in place to avoid another disorder of this caliber. FEMA has now lost credibility on its ability to provide aid to the people of the United States. With blame being shifted throughout the heirarcy and not taken account for, the city of New Orleans was made an example of how disfuctional and unorganized the levels of action where in 2005. Since then, updates to the National Response Plan were put into place however it is up to citizens to be aware of evacuation plans and for local authorities to enforce them.

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