After the disaster that was the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, America was skeptical of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s ability to act when called upon. Some even demanded FEMA’s abolition, replacing it with a new, more effective agency. Since then, President Bush and Congress called for a complete overhaul of the organization. In addition, Bush included extensive signing statements and appointed a new head to facilitate the agency’s reformation. FEMA gained more autonomy from regulatory agencies and other constraining bureaucratic organizations. The fires in San Diego and other Southern California locales have proven these actions are bringing much better results.
As the flames grew, America waited for federal intervention in one of the worst fires in San Diego County’s history. The Bush administration responded with quick action by declaring a state of emergency in seven counties, making way for much needed aid from FEMA. In addition, Bush rushed to San Diego to observe the damage himself – an action he was accused of neglecting during the Katrina disaster. The response shows the reorganization resulted in a great success, and the Bush administration is learning from its mistakes.
This quick response can be heavily attributed to President Bush’s decision to include FEMA in the Dept. of Homeland Security following Sept. 11. By grouping this agency with other important security groups, FEMA is better able to communicate with other disaster relief organizations. Dept. of Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff acknowledged that FEMA’s ability to plan with the defense department contributed heavily to the successful coordination of rescue efforts in San Diego. Since bureaucracies follow a strict set of standard operating procedures, it can be very difficult to facilitate communication between the groups. Clearly, the department opened up these communication lines.
Bureaucratic reformation is extremely difficult. Aside from appointing the heads of agencies, presidents have few effective tools at their disposal for influencing the function of agencies. In addition, executive orders and signing statements meant to direct bureaucrats give the executive limited control for ensuring legislation functions correctly once it reaches the streets. By appointing a new head to FEMA shortly after Katrina and using his powers to rework legislation regarding the agency, Bush incited the most possible change.
Looking at the San Diego fires, FEMA performed much better, swiftly declaring a state of emergency aid to the region. As a result, far fewer lives were lost from this tragic event, and comfort was brought to thousands of individuals forced to leave their homes. This aid, combined with the perseverance of San Diego residents and support from across the nation, resulted in a highly successful rescue effort.
Everyone makes mistakes. This is simply a fact of life. Some mistakes are clearly worse than others – like Katrina. I am by no means attempting to play down the significance of Hurricane Katrina. We can all agree the Bush administration’s response to that disaster was nothing short of completely unacceptable. However, I believe Bush learned from his costly mistakes, and did what was needed to make FEMA more responsive, while working closely with the Dept. of Homeland Security. However, Bush-haters choose to ignore the improvements the administration made, instead focusing on its shortcomings. Give credit where it is due: FEMA has improved immensely, and the current administration is responsible.
The American bureaucracy has come a long way in terms of organization. As it continues to grow in size, it is also becoming more entangled in loyalty to one’s own organization. Specifically, Bush’s creation of the Dept. of Homeland Security created lasting changes to a complicated and inefficient system. We should praise him for bringing these disjointed agencies together, allowing for better protection post-9/11. As we can see from the response to the San Diego fires, we need a president who will push for open communication lines within the bureaucracies. President Bush got the ball rolling on bureaucratic reformation. Let’s hope that future presidents keep the ball in motion.