FEMA Weathers Storm From Critics

Federal Emergency Management Administration, FEMA logo
First it was the people of the Gulf Coast who were battered by Katrina. Then, when they waited days for help, it was FEMA that took a pounding.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was created for just these kinds of national catastrophes. But, as New Orleans sank deeper by the day, where were they, asks CBS News Correspondent Anthony Mason?

"Citizens of the United States expect their government to be there in times of disaster and they were not there," Jane Bullock, a former FEMA official says.

Bullock worked for FEMA during the Clinton administration.

"The job FEMA has done is terrible. I would give it a failing grade," Bullock says.

Some state and local officials have been also criticized for being slow to respond, but no agency has taken greater heat than FEMA.

Earlier this week, CBS News Correspondent Harry Smith asked former FEMA director Michael Brown if the agency's disaster planning was sound.

"Did you screw this up?" Smith asked.

Brown responded, "No."

Brown's credentials seemed conspicuously lacking. A lawyer -- his previous job was running horse shows. His White House résumé claims he was "an assistant city manager" in Edmond, Oklahoma," with emergency services oversight." But Edmond officials say Brown was "more like an intern" with no supervisory authority.

Brown says, "People want to lash out at me. People want to lash out at FEMA, I say that's fine. Just lash out that's fine, because my job is to continue to save lives, my job is to continue to save people and I'm going to do that."

At first, President Bush, who appointed Brown, gave him a vote of confidence.

"Brownie, you doing a great job," Mr. Bush told Brown back on Sept. 2.

But by Friday, Brown himself was an evacuee, let go from his position as director.

Brown's boss, the head of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, announced that Brown was being relieved of his hurricane duties--not fired as FEMA director, just being sent back to Washington. But this storm is not likely to blow over.

"Michael Brown is not the whole problem," Bullock says. "We do not have anyone responsible who knows anything about disaster. And we are suffering the consequences."

Brown was replaced by Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who had been in charge of rescue and recovery efforts for New Orleans.

Here's how FEMA describes its mission: "Responding to, planning for, recovering from and mitigating against disasters." Katrina showed how well the agency does at "responding," but just last summer this computer model showed how FEMA does "planning."

Hurricane "Pam" was only a simulated storm. But it packed 120-mile an hour winds.

Professor Elizabeth English of Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center helped in this FEMA-directed emergency response exercise.

"Pam simulated a large amount of water being swept from Lake Pontchartrain over the levee into the bowl of new Orleans," English says.

The storm surge projection showed the levees would be overwhelmed by even a Category 3 hurricane they were designed to withstand and the city would be swamped under 20 feet of water.

For five days last summer FEMA, the national weather service and the Army Corps of Engineers all monitored "Pam" and forecast devastating consequences if a similar hurricane hit the city.

"Unfortunately, so much of it is exactly what happened. We predicted that people would be trapped in their houses. Sitting on roofs," English says.

"We were predicting enormous fatalities and enormous distress," she adds.

And what did they learn? FEMA in its own press release at the end of the "Pam" exercise said "We made great progress in our preparedness efforts. Over the next 60 days we will polish the action plans."

So what happened as Katrina approached? On the Saturday morning two days before the hurricane struck, FEMA's watch commanders issued a warning.

"We put a situation report out at 5:30 a.m. saying a catastrophic hurricane is headed straight, dead-center for New Orleans and Brown and Chertoff and these people did nothing," Leo Bosner says.

Bosner has worked at FEMA since the agency was founded in 1979. He says Chertoff, who came to Homeland Security from the Attorney General's office, and Brown were out of their depth when the flood waters rose.

"We've never seen Michael Brown help run a disaster. He doesn't run disasters 'cause he has no idea how to," Bosner says. "He's a courtroom lawyer. If I get sued I'd like to have him or Michael Chertoff defending me in court, but not running a disaster."

But Congress may have helped weaken FEMA when it voted to take away FEMA's cabinet-level status and put it under the Department of Homeland Security. Suddenly, FEMA became just one box in the bureaucracy.

Asked if FEMA failed the Gulf Coast, Louisiana's former Democratic Senator John Breaux says, "I think we made a mistake in not keeping FEMA separate from Homeland Security.

"By putting them under the jurisdiction of Homeland Security where the focus has been, rightfully so, on terrorist attacks from a foreign entity, we diluted their mission," Breaux explains.

Breaux says Katrina has shown that FEMA needs to be made a priority again.

"This has to be not only a disaster. It has to be a lesson on how to prevent these things from happening in the future," Breaux says.

Now, nearly two weeks after Katrina made landfall, the list of disaster debris that needs to be cleaned up seems to keep getting longer. You can add to it FEMA's reputation.