Hurricane Katrina’s direct hit on New Orleans in 2005 brought disaster in many ways: almost 1,800 lives lost, $108 billion in property damage, and for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a lingering reputation for failure.
In fact, it might have meant the end for the agency. There’s been talk in the long presidential selection process leading up to Tuesday’s election that FEMA might be a worthy target for elimination or privatization in the name of federal budget-cutting.
Hold on. FEMA, the dope of Katrina, may be turning into the hero of Superstorm Sandy.
In terms of lives affected, Sandy is bigger than Katrina. Millions of people live in the path of the superstorm, which moved onshore last Monday in New Jersey. FEMA’s success in its mission of coordinating federal relief efforts, assisting state and local emergency response teams and, as the name says, emergency management, was essential.
From all accounts so far, the agency has met the challenge admirably.
Still, it’s reasonable to ask whether FEMA is really necessary. Could states or private industry do the job?
No. There could be no better demonstration than Sandy that a well-run federal emergency response is crucial in a major disaster. If we didn’t have FEMA, we’d need the same agency by another name.
At a time when all federal resources must be available to help, coordinated by full-time professionals in emergency management, with relief supplies at hand and ready for distribution, with expertise to help state and local response efforts in ways that have been worked out well ahead of time, FEMA or something like it is called for.
That didn’t happen with Katrina. But FEMA obviously has been reshaped and given competent leadership since then. It appears to be working now.