It is becoming more apparent that the Federal Emergency Management Agency needs a complete overhaul – one that goes far deeper than the mere replacement of its chief.
Tornadoes brought by severe storms in central Florida have left 20 dead and hundreds homeless. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and FEMA chief David Paulison have said the agency was quick to respond.
But as America knows from Hurricane Katrina, FEMA’s definition of “quick” is subjective. Quick enough for FEMA is not necessarily quick enough for people with nowhere to go because their houses have been destroyed.
People such as Allan Smith, for example. His house in central Florida was destroyed by one of the tornadoes that struck Friday, but after spending hours in a makeshift tent with FEMA officials, “He emerged with few answers,” according to the Associated Press. He told the AP, “If I didn’t have in-laws, I wouldn’t have a place to go.”
FEMA leaped to its own defense. In response to some complaints arising from the more than 670 people who have applied for help, FEMA spokesman James McIntyre told the AP that President Bush didn’t declare the tornado-damaged areas federal disaster areas until Saturday. He said he doesn’t want people to expect money anytime soon. He said FEMA is a stopgap agency that “will not make them whole.”
Frankly, victims of catastrophic weather, such as Smith, don’t expect FEMA to make them whole again. Smith wants shelter, not spiritual completion.
McIntyre was right when he said FEMA was a stopgap agency, but the problem is that it hasn’t been stopping any gaps. Instead of providing shelter for those who have none due to disaster, FEMA continues, as it did in New Orleans, to treat victims as if they were asking for a handout.
Paulison wants warning systems in place, apparently ignoring the fact that it’s extraordinarily difficult to warn people accurately about the location and path of tornadoes – just as it’s very difficult to ask people to evacuate a city when they have no money with which to leave.
Instead of bringing in trailers, FEMA wants to put people in existing vacant houses. Judging from the number of complaints they’ve been getting in Florida, even that policy isn’t working.
It’s starting to look like nothing about FEMA works. In fact, the country wouldn’t lose much by liquidating the agency. It would not be hard to replace an organization that apparently manages disasters by giving its victims a bottle of water and a “good luck.”