July 16, 2007
Outsourcing FEMA

The State of Texas plans to look towards the private sector for relief when the next big hurricane hits.

"If FEMA shows up, good," said Jack Colley, chief of the Governor's Division of Emergency Management. ''But we're not waiting."

Call it one more example of the lingering Hurricane Katrina effect, but Colley and his team are looking past the traditional go-through-FEMA-to-get-ice kind of emergency management model.

This new strategy, borne during 2005's Hurricane Rita and fine-tuned in the two years since by the state's emergency agency, has retailers conducting mock drills alongside government officials.

"FEMA was an old contact point for ice, water, etc," Colley explained from his agency's state operations center in the basement of Texas Department of Public Safety headquarters in Austin. "The private sector is willing and able to do this for us."

For the past two years, Colley and Texas Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw have cultivated direct relationships with retailers after watching Louisiana and Mississippi officials dial FEMA in vain for food, water and other aid.

"FEMA can't compete with the private sector," Colley said. "They do it quicker, smarter, faster every day."

The problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that it conveniently forgets just how good FEMA was during the Clinton Administration, and how completely the Bush Administration's leave-no-crony-behind philosophy undid all of that. (Here's a couple of reminders, in case you've forgotten.) I don't doubt that HEB and Wal-Mart can do a better job than the current incarnation of FEMA. But let's face it, that's a mighty low bar to clear. And the point is that it didn't have to be this way.

It's really simple. When FEMA was run by a competent administrator and was given a mandate to succeed, it did. When it's run by a crony with no experience or interest in disaster recovery, it becomes a joke that needs to be worked around. Given the right kind of Presidential administration in place, there's no reason to believe FEMA can't be effective again. One can hardly blame the state of Texas for feeling compelled to deal with the current reality. But faith in the private sector has nothing to do with it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 16, 2007 to Hurricane Katrina

There are 3 stages of Emergency Management. Two that are commonly mistaken are Response and Recovery. Response is the first 72 hours of operations after a disaster. That's when we see helicopter rescues and mass shelters, food distribution, and evacuations. This is mainly the local and state government's responsibility. They are the chief rescuers. Just think about it this way, there are no Federal firefighters or police officers, and the National Guard is under the command of the governor when state side. Nor do they run shelters, that is the Red Cross' job. The Fed's just don't have those kinds of capabilities. FEMA is a recovery agency. It is responsible for operations 72 hours after the disaster. They are the ones to go to for long-term housing, grants, loans, and etc. This is not just me ranting, this is the law. Look up the Stafford Act and the National Response Plan, and you will see how this is laid out. I applaud the state for its limited coordination with the private sector and I hope to see more of it in the future.

Posted by: David on July 16, 2007 5:55 PM