How FEMA Works

Past Problems

Search and Rescue workers gather at the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing.
Search and Rescue workers gather at the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing.
Photo courtesy FEMA

For all the good it does, FEMA is not perfect. There have been problems in the past with FEMA disaster response, and those problems have become more obvious in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Critics say that one of FEMA's biggest problems is bureaucracy. There are many administrative officials, overlapping state and federal agencies and political agendas. This seems ironic, FEMA was originally formed to eliminate the redundancies and inefficiencies of past disaster management efforts. The agency can act very quickly -- sometimes the president can make a disaster declaration within hours. However, requests have also been denied or sent back because the right forms were not filled out properly, or a signature was missing. Sometimes officials sent requests back through the mail, delaying FEMA's disaster response by days.

Some of the problems may stem from recent changes in FEMA's organization, related to the agency's absorption into the Department of Homeland Security. Prior to this change, state and federal officials would meet, plan and react to disasters together. FEMA was praised for its response to disasters like the Oklahoma City bombing and the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake. The Bush administration has worked to shift responsibility for disaster management from federal agencies to state and local agencies. The government has drastically cut funding for FEMA as well. In Louisiana, funding for studies and flood prevention efforts in the Lake Pontchartrain area was cut by more than $40 million and the Army Corps of Engineers had its budget cut by $71 million [ref].

FEMA was criticized for poor response times to disasters prior to the Bush administration, such as Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Hugo in 1990. Some critics think that the quality of leadership within the agency continues to factor into its uneven response record. Presidents have appointed friends to high FEMA positions, but many of these appointees had little to no experience in disaster management. President George W. Bush was accused of this when he named Michael Brown as head of FEMA.

In the next section, we'll look at problems with the response to Hurricane Katrina.