Disaster in Charge of Disasters

August 28, 1992

How many hurricanes have to howl, how many quakes have to shake the earth, how many bureaucratic screw-ups have to be endured before this nation puts its disaster-response system in order? Hurricane Andrew, the costliest natural calamity in U.S. history, may prove in the end that there has been some BTC incremental improvement in evacuating people from threatened areas, in aiding victims and in absorbing and compensating for tremendous financial impact. But there is still a vast need for improvement and reform.

Listen to a furious Kate Hale, emergency operations director in Dade County, Fla., the site of Andrew's warlike devastation: "Where the hell is the cavalry on this one?" she demanded yesterday. "President Bush was down here. I'd like him to follow up on the commitments he made." So far, she said, all she hears from Washington is that they are "getting mobilized."

Okay, these are the laments of a frustrated official who knows families in the remote southern portions of her county are dangerously low on food and water and protection from disease. But Ms. Hale's complaints sound distressingly like those heard two years ago from South Carolinians after Hurricane Hugo's pulverizations and from Californians after their earthquake in the San Francisco-Oakland area. In these and all too many other cases, the target of local wrath is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, an ill-starred outfit that has been a running disaster since its creation in 1979. After Hugo, Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., called FEMA officials "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I have ever encountered."

In its first decade, FEMA was notorious for mismanagement and for its preoccupation with the nuclear threat rather than nature's lashings. Only this month, a House subcommittee staff report described the agency as a "political dumping ground" for incompetents quite adept at passing out consulting contracts to cronies. FEMA's present boss, Wallace E. Stickney, is a New Hampshire protege of former White House chief of staff John H. Sununu. Lately some of Mr. Stickney's top aides have been shown the door while lush transportation has been denied the agency on grounds of limousine abuse.

Unluckily for FEMA, it is an easy target for blame-pointers. It is condemned both for delaying aid to victims and for being too liberal with federal grants and loans. All its critics can't be right.

Congress soon will be called upon to make more emergency funds available, as was the case after the Los Angeles riots. Of course it should do so for tens of thousands of Americans who suddenly find themselves wiped out. But in taking action, Congress should enact self-enforcing mechanisms that result in top-to-bottom reform of the nation's disaster-response system. Anything less will be a setup for the next catastrophe's cries for help and for fulminations against federal experts who, in many instances, are doing an estimable job despite their political bosses.

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