Union Says Involvement of Career Employees Will Determine Whether Plan Can Succeed
WASHINGTON-The American Federation of Government Employees today welcomed the report released by the White House on lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina, but expressed caution as to whether the report would actually address the problems or simply cover them up.
The biggest problem, the union says, is the Bush administration's mistrust of its own disaster workforce at FEMA, a workforce that AFGE points out functioned effectively before it was placed under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Ten years ago this month, President Clinton promoted FEMA Director James Lee Witt to Cabinet level in recognition of the job FEMA did responding to the Oklahoma City Bombing and other disasters and emergencies during the 1990s.
"Witt and FEMA proved that the best way to get aid to victims is by having a good, comprehensive plan for any emergency, whether it is a natural disaster or a terrorist incident," said Leo Bosner, President of AFGE Local 4060 at FEMA headquarters in Washington. "When terrorists bombed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, FEMA had search and rescue teams on the way within two hours. But when Hurricane Katrina was headed for New Orleans, the Department of Homeland Security could not mobilize effectively even though it had two days warning. It is obvious which system works better."
When DHS took over FEMA, the job of writing the National Response Plan (NRP) was taken away from agency emergency relief professionals and given to a private consulting company. As a result, says Bosner, an ineffective plan was produced, and many of FEMA's most experienced employees have left the agency in disgust. According to Bosner, resignations and retirements have risen sharply at FEMA since it was made a part of DHS. He believes that the divergent missions of DHS and FEMA is part of the problem. Bosner likened the role of DHS to a police department and FEMA to a fire department. “One catches the bad guys and the other rescues victims. Of course DHS and FEMA have to coordinate, but they have two distinct missions."
Bosner said that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, DHS officials ignored major problems, but continually demanded details on less important matters. Bosner said DHS ignored reports that were provided by officials on the ground in New Orleans. For example Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA public affair official, reported on conditions in the Superdome and provided an eyewitness account that the levees had broken, only to be ignored.
In contrast, Bosner explained that DHS officials demanded information that had little operational value at the time, like the address of every emergency shelter in the country. The deluge of detailed but pointless questions from DHS during the disaster response distracted FEMA from its job and probably hampered rescue efforts, says Bosner.
“As long as FEMA is under DHS, problems are likely to continue,” says Bosner. "I'm told that at least three state emergency officials have turned down the job of FEMA Director because it is under the Department of Homeland Security. Everyone says FEMA needs a top-quality director, but how do we get one when the top candidates won’t take the job?"
AFGE offered concepts for strengthening FEMA on October 20, 2005 and on February 15, 2006, called for FEMA to be reestablished as an independent agency.
AFGE is the largest federal employee union representing 600,000 workers in the federal government and the government of the District of Columbia, including the largest constituency of DHS employees, comprising Customs & Border Protection, Border Patrol, Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration & Customs Enforcement, and Federal Law Enforcement Training Center officers; FEMA workers; TSA screeners; and civilian U.S. Coast Guard employees.