Since the 1970s, Washington has emerged as the insurer of last resort against floods, fires, earthquakes and — after 2001 — terrorist attacks.Witt was just hired by Gov. Blanco to lead Louisiana's reconstruction effort.
But the government's stumbling response to the storm that devastated the nation's Gulf Coast reveals that the federal agency singularly most responsible for making good on Washington's expanded promise has been hobbled by cutbacks and a bureaucratic downgrading.
FEMA was created in 1979 in response to criticism about Washington's fragmented reaction to a series of disasters, including Hurricane Camille, which devastated the Mississippi coast 10 years earlier. The agency was rocked by scandal in the 1980s and turned in such a poor performance after Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992 that President George H.W. Bush is thought to have lost votes as a result.
But according to a variety of former officials and outside experts, the agency experienced a renaissance under President Clinton's director, James Lee Witt, speedily responding to the 1993 Mississippi flood, the 1994 Northridge earthquake and other disasters.
Witt's biggest change was to get FEMA to focus on reducing risks ahead of disasters and funding local prevention programs.
But with the change of administration in 2001, many of Witt's prevention programs were reduced or cut entirely. After Sept. 11, former FEMA officials and outside authorities said, Washington's attention turned to terrorism to the exclusion of almost anything else.
FEMA's current head, Michael Brown was a patronage hire and it shows.
Perhaps in the future qualifications will be weighed more heavily than connections in selecting heads of important and complex agencies.