Should FEMA Remain a Part of DHS?

It would be detrimental to remove FEMA from DHS and restore it to independent cabinet-level status as it was under President Clinton. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has, according to Don Kettl, “gone through a long and wrenching series of reorganizations…Change for the sake of change could simply induce organizational whiplash and further destabilize an already unstable organization” (U.S. Department of Homeland Security- Office of Inspector General, 2009, p 9).

In 1979, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was established as an all-hazard planning agency under the Carter Administration. By the 1980s, “nuclear preparedness became a top priority for FEMA” (DHS, 2006, p 128). Resources within FEMA were rearranged to focus on nuclear attacks; additional budget authority was sought to enhance and elevate the national security responsibilities of the agency” (Bullock, Haddow, Coppola, & Yeletaysi, 2009, p 6). The focus on nuclear attacks resulted in a lack of preparedness for natural disasters. This proved detrimental to FEMA in 1989 when several natural disasters affected the United States. As has occurred throughout American history, in times of distress, government agencies tend to focus on specific threats and neglect other potential hazards.

Throughout the 1980s FEMA struggled to become a successful and effective organization. However, this changed during the Witt Era, from 1993-2001. The Witt Era has since been FEMA’s most successful period as it was lead by James Lee Witt, appointed by President Clinton, who had experience in emergency management (U.S. Department of Homeland Security- Office of Inspector General, 2009). Unfortunately, this trend did not last into the succeeding administration, as President Bush did not appoint an expert in emergency management to head FEMA. It has been argued, in regards to the Witt Era successes and the following unstable, ineffective history of FEMA, that “The success of an organization is often more about the organization’s leadership than its structure” (U.S. DHS- Office of Inspector General, 2009, p 18). Therefore, if FEMA was moved back into independent status, its success would be extremely contingent upon who was appointed to lead FEMA.

FEMA is also better suited as part of the Department of Homeland Security because the integration of agencies makes collaboration and cooperation more plausible. Interagency cooperation and coordination are absolutely essential elements in emergency management. When the government lacks cooperation and collaboration between agencies, it is impossible for efficient and effective emergency management. For example, interagency collaboration was lacks in the 1970s. According to Bullock, et al. (2009), with the passage of the Disaster Relief Act of 1974, “more than 100 federal agencies were involved in some aspect of risk and disasters” (p 4). Essentially, during disaster response efforts, there was mass confusion caused by turf wars; the fragmentation of emergency management organizations resulted in poor results (Bullock, et al., 2009). Presently, as a part of DHS (which consists of 22 agencies, as appose to 100 federal agencies), FEMA benefits from synergy and resources shared between agencies. According to Chertoff, “the fact that FEMA and other components of DHS have had an opportunity during times of rest to plan, train and exercise together and to build capabilities that are capable of crossing jurisdictional lines has allowed us to have the kind of capabilities to support and emergency that would not be the case if we were in different departments” (U.S. DHS- Office of Inspector General, 2009, p 11). Essentially, FEMA’s position in the DHS makes it possible for communication between agencies and collaborative support in times of an emergency.

Following the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA suffered yet another transfer of functions and additional instability. According to the U.S. DHS- Office of Inspector General (2009), “members of the emergency management community began complaining that DHS was stripping FEMA of its authorities and resources, and that the department’s overwhelming focus on terrorism, to the detriment of attention to natural disasters, was hurting morale” (p 7). Despite the fact that the threat of terrorism is great, the Department of Homeland security was placing too much attention and resources on a specific potential hazard. This tunnel vision focus results in a lack of preparation for other hazards. Essentially, the government needs to be organized to defend against any hazard. However, immediate paranoia, politics, and perceived public interests result in ineffective laws and policies. This tunnel vision and lack of resources allocated to FEMA resulted in a poor response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This resulted in the 2006, Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act. “The Act made FEMA a distinct entity within DHS and placed restrictions on actions that the Secretary of DHS can take affecting FEMA, directed that the FEMA Administrator report directly to the Secretary, created a direct line of communication between the FEMA Administrator and the President during times of emergency, and restored to FEMA many of the functions that had been transferred to other parts of the department” (U.S. DHS- Office of Inspector General, 2009, p 8). This alone displays the vitality of FEMA to the DHS for interagency collaboration on homeland security and emergency management.

As stated by Derthick (2009), “A second bulwark was a widely shared belief, with a grounding in common sense, that successful disaster response begins locally and depends on intergovernmental cooperation” (p 21).

Bullock, J.A., Haddow, G.D., Coppola, D.P. & Yeletaysi, S. (2009). Historic overview of the terrorist threat. In Introduction to homeland security: Principles of all-hazards response, 3rd ed. (Chapt. 1, pp. 1-28). Bulington, MA: Elsevier/ Butterworth-Heinemann.

Department of Homeland Security- Homeland Security National Preparedness Task Force. (2006). Civil defense and homeland security: A short history of preparedness efforts (pp. 1-36).

Derthick, M. (2009). The transformation that fell short: Bush, federalism, and emergency management. (pp. 1-27). The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security- Office of Inspector General. (2009). FEMA: In or out? (pp. 1-19).

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