Take the politics out of FEMA

David Frum

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: The National Hurricane Center says it's unlikely that the year's first named hurricane is going to hit the East Coast of the United States, but if you have cash offshore in the Caribbean somewhere, you might want to keep your eye on the Weather Channel for updates on Hurricane Bertha.

Forecasters say they're surprised by how fast and how early in the season Bertha developed.

Commentator David Frum says if or when a big storm does hit, don't expect FEMA to do much.


David Frum: Three years ago, Hurricane Katrina wrecked New Orleans and the Bush Administration. The president's job ratings plunged in the summer of 2005 and never recovered.

Today, we wonder whether the government has learned the lessons of Katrina. Yet ironically, the Katrina disaster can be traced to the lessons learned from another previous disaster -- the wrong lessons.

Hurricane Andrew struck southern Florida and southwestern Louisiana in August 1992. Andrew ranks as one of the three most powerful storms of the 20th century. It inflicted enormous economic damage and killed 65 people.

Federal response to the Category 5 hurricane was widely perceived as tardy. The Dade County Emergency Director appeared on television to beseech, "Where in Hell is the cavalry?"

The delay exacted political costs. In 1988, George H. W. Bush won both Florida and Louisiana. In 1992, he lost Louisiana and saw his margin in Florida dwindle from 12 points to a tenth of one point.

Many blame the Andrew response for Jeb Bush's defeat in his first attempt at the Florida governorship in 1994.

The conclusion that George W. Bush drew from Andrew was this: Federal emergency management is a deeply political job and requires a deeply political director. Literally.

In 2001, Bush gave the top job at FEMA to his campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh. The legendary Michael Brown was a long-time friend of Allbaugh's who joined the agency as general counsel, then filled the top post when Allbaugh returned to the private sector in 2003.

So, was Bush right? Should federal emergency management be so political?

The Weather Service that predicts the hurricanes relies on career specialists. So does the Coast Guard that deals with the consequences of hurricanes from the shore outward. Why not FEMA too?

Even from the politicians' own point of view, might it not be better to professionalize the thing? A non-political FEMA might well perform better and if it failed, the pols would have somebody else to blame.


Ryssdal: David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is called "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again."

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