HELP BUNGLED AND DISORGANIZED
By Martin Mann and George Nicholas
Exclusive to The SPOTLIGHT
Washington, DC -- One after another, two violent, cataclysmic disasters
struck the United States in the fall of 1989. Hurricane Hugo roared
through the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Carolinas in September.
Within weeks, northern California was shaken by the Loma Prieta earthquake
that left hundreds of thousands of victims and billions of dollars in
damage in its wake.
Having spent "over $25 billion on setting up FEMA," American taxpayers
were entitled to expect "quick and efficient help" from it in the face of
such shattering calamities. But the response by the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) to these upheavals was "bungled" and
"disorganized," says Ray Groover, who reported on the hurricane for a San
Juan, Puerto Rico, newspaper and is now studying for a graduate degree in
journalism at Columbia University in New York.
Since the Disaster Relief Act of 1988, FEMA has been responsible for
coordinating the "[disaster] preparedness, response and recovery actions of
state and local governments." Unable to live up to these responsibilities
during the 1989 crisis, the agency drew sharp criticism from the press and
from Congress, whose leaders assigned the General Accounting Office (GAO)
to conduct the first-ever detailed investigation of FEMA.
For a year, GAO field examiners interviewed hundreds of disaster
victims, state and local relief workers, journalists and other witnesses.
The agency has assembled a 71-page report on U.S. relief operations.
WATCHDOG AGENCY RATES FEMA
Having obtained an advance copy of that survey, a team of SPOTLIGHT
reporters found that the congressional watchdog agency rated FEMA's ability
to deal with natural disasters as being "inefficient," "weak" and
Noting that "emergency management includes three phases:
preparedness, response and recovery," GAO probers warned that FEMA failed
to operate "as efficiently as possible" in all these areas.
There was evidence of "inadequate planning ... inadequate or no
standard operating procedures ... [and a] lack of coordination" wherever
FEMA's bureaucrats intervened, the GAO report concluded. Among the results
of these botched relief attempts were "delays in providing disaster
assistance and duplicate payments for some [of FEMA's] activities," the
congressional overseers discovered.
One example of FEMA's failure cited by the GAO survey team involved
4,000 low-income units wholly destroyed in California's devastating October
1989 earthquake. "Thirteen months later, only 114 units had been processed
and approved for [rehabilitation] funding," the report reveals. Similarly,
10 months after Hurricane Hugo, most of the families left homeless "had not
yet been provided with housing assistance from FEMA."
DIRECTORS SHELL GAME
Warned that the GAO report will expose FEMA as incompetent and
wasteful, President George Bush fired agency Director Julius Becton, an
elderly three-star general, whose principal qualifications for flag rank
was Henry Kissinger's wish to promote "minority" officers, Defense
Department sources say.
Becton was replace by Wallace Stickney, a former New Hampshire state
official whose colorless and low-profile reputation is expected to dampen
the fireworks the GAO report might otherwise touch off about the inadequacy
of federal relief operations.
But simply shifting directors "does not answer the real question: If
[FEMA officials] seem uninterested and negligent when it comes to disaster
response, what are FEMA's thousands of bureaucrats working on?" asked
The answer, a SPOTLIGHT investigation has found, is that FEMA's
leadership is developing programs that will not merely "[ensure] the
continuity of the federal government in any national emergency-type
situation," as decreed by President Gerald Ford in Executive Order 11921,
but REPLACE the nation's Constitutional statecraft with a centralized
Reproduced with permission from a special supplement to _The Spotlight_,
May 25, 1992. This text may be freely reproduced provided acknowledgement
to The Spotlight appears, including this address:
300 Independence Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20003