It's going on four years since Hurricane Katrina's flooding devastated the City of New Orleans, but recovery efforts are still partial and halting. Now, FEMA's recovery office in the city has come under new fire. Besides charges of bureaucratic inefficiency and foot-dragging, newly-elected Louisiana Representative Anh Cao has drawn attention in House committee hearings to a rash of accusations of employee harassment, including sexual harassment in the workplace. The Times-Picayune's article, " New Orleans FEMA Recovery Office Probed," by Jonathan Tilove, covers that story. Republican Congressman Cao in February called for a criminal investigation of FEMA's Louisiana Transitional Recovery Office, according to a report by Louisiana TV station WWLTV (" Cao Asks For Criminal Investigation Into FEMA Office," by Susan Edwards). According to Cao, there are more than 4,000 recovery projects currently delayed because of inaction by the FEMA office. And some staffers at the office reportedly told a CBS News investigation that upper-level officials may be slowing down the projects for the purpose of their own financial gain. To complicate matters, 2008 saw 30 employee grievances filed in the office against one manager, Chief of Staff Doug Whitmer. Congressman Cao and Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu have both demanded that Whitmer resign (" Landrieu, Cao Call For FEMA Official's Resignation," by Bruce Alpert). But in a February 27 visit to New Orleans, acting FEMA director Nancy Ward took a lesser step, reassigning Whitmer temporarily to a FEMA office in Texas, pending a FEMA internal investigation of the complaints, according to CBS News (" FEMA Under Fire Amid Misconduct Claims," by Armen Keteyian). Meanwhile, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano toured New Orleans on March 5, expressing anger at the slow pace of recovery before moving on to a tour of coastal Mississippi, where progress has been faster. Many locals would agree with Napolitano's impatience. "I've been dealing with three years of roadblocks," said Slidell Mayor Ben Morris in a St. Tammany News report (" Slidell Mayor Says FEMA Short-Changing City," by Erik Sanzenbach). And in USA Today commentary, Tulane University president Scott Cowen said FEMA is part of the problem, not part of the solution (" Gulf Coast Recovering Despite FEMA's Efforts"). On March 5, President Barack Obama tapped Florida emergency management veteran W. Craig Fugate as FEMA's new permanent head, to take over from acting director Ward, reports the Washington Post (" Fla. Official Chosen to Run FEMA," by Spencer S. Hsu). In Florida, Fugate has headed up the state Division of Emergency Management for 8 years, leading the response to four major hurricanes in both 2004 and 2005. FEMA: No Plan?
But Fugate will now take on a much tougher task. The agency's troubles go far beyond mismanagement or misbehavior at one recovery office, according to a 291-page report (Caution: This link is a 20-megabyte PDF download) released on February 27 by the U.S. Senate's Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery. After an exhaustive critique of FEMA's Katrina response, the committee examined whether the agency is ready for another similar catastrophe. The conclusion: They're not. Chief among the causes of FEMA's 2005 failure, said the committee, was a lack of planning (which the agency itself had been aware of for years): "In short, as FEMA officials recognized, FEMA had no operational catastrophic housing plan when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck. Numerous FEMA officials acknowledged that better planning would have improved the post-Katrina housing response in various respects. As a FEMA official, Berl Jones, put it, 'a plan would certainly have helped.' " The problem now, said the committee, is that FEMA still has no plan to house displaced people if another Katrina hits. "The greatest and most damaging deficiency in the Strategy is that FEMA still has no implementation and operational plans. Although absence of such plans was a key reason for the inadequacies in the Katrina response, should a catastrophe of Katrina's magnitude occur in the near future, FEMA still has no comprehensive operational housing plans. This is because of its delegation of operational disaster housing planning, and implementation, to a Task Force that does not yet exist." Similar gaps exist in the agency's capacity for funding and administering major reconstruction efforts after a catastrophe, the report concludes. The subcommittee put forth a seven-point outline of recommended reforms, many of which would require legislation as well as administrative action to accomplish. So alongside foreign military deployments and the response to the global economic crisis, the Obama Administration now has another major project to add to its already packed agenda: With the 2009 hurricane season just half a year away, a major re-working of the government's approach to managing natural disaster.