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In fact, peacetime operations didn’t come naturally to FEMA. For the Cold War, it had created a special mobile command centers, known as Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) units—eventually building some 300 special vehicles and stationing them across the country at its regional facilities. It tried to repurpose them for natural disasters. Following Hurricane Andrew in 1992, FEMA dispatched MERS units to help the residents of hard-hit Homestead, Florida, but found the vehicles were too high-tech to be of much use—the souped-up tractor-trailers could communicate on encrypted channels with military forces around the world but lacked the basic hand-held radios and telephones necessary to communicate with first responders down the street.
The agency’s history as a dumping ground for political patronage did little to help its reputation—just as predecessor civil defense agencies had been parking lots for presidential friends and one-time governors, FEMA had nearly 10 times the normal proportion of political appointees.
In the wake of 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, as FEMA stubbornly waited three days to provide aid to a devastated Florida until officials had filed the correct paperwork, Dade County’s head of emergency preparedness called a press conference and begged, “Where the hell is the cavalry on this one? We need food. We need water. We need people. For God’s sake, where are they?” By the end of President George H.W. Bush’s administration, FEMA was widely seen as the most incompetent agency in the US government. Other government workers labeled it the “turkey farm.”
To reform the agency, President Bill Clinton brought in an old friend—like so many of his predecessors—but that friend turned out to be perhaps FEMA’s most effective leader in its history. James Lee Witt seemed perhaps an odd fit at first. A Skoal-dipping son of a farmer who became known in the capital for his ostrich-skin boots and Southern drawl, he had never graduated from college, but he had a forceful personality and a strong background in emergency management from Arkansas. In short order Witt reshuffled nearly 80 percent of the agency’s senior leadership. FEMA streamlined its public mission to just four priorities that would become familiar hallmarks in the years ahead: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Witt launched a public relations campaign on Capitol Hill to reassure representatives and senators that their states would get the help they needed.
Meanwhile, the agency was getting downright innovative as well as effective. As part of its response to the Los Angeles earthquake in 1994, it distributed assistance forms right in the daily Los Angeles Times to ensure as many people as possible could access help quickly. And to help boost FEMA’s visibility and power within the federal government, Clinton had promoted FEMA to Cabinet status—meaning it reported directly to the Oval Office.
By the time George W. Bush took over the White House, FEMA had the highest public approval ratings it had ever had—and was publicly known primarily as a natural disaster response agency. “He’s taken a very positive attitude toward the workers,” Leo Bosner, a former FEMA union president said of Witt. “He has focused us on the hazards we face—earthquakes, fires—rather than on what we should do when the bombs start flying.” But for those who knew where to look, FEMA’s continuity of government capabilities had continued to chug along, out of sight. The agency manual, version 1010.1, laid out the responsibilities for its two most generic and innocuous divisions—the Special Programs Division and the Program Coordination Division, the two wings of FEMA that continued to run its secret continuity operations.
In the Blue Ridge Mountains, the FEMA staff continued to keep watch at Mount Weather right through 9/11, when the facility suddenly seemed newly relevant—and Air Force helicopters descended on the mountain, ferrying the congressional leadership and other high-level officials to the bunker.
Just how little had been invested in FEMA was evident inside the agency that day: As the Central Locator System began to track down the presidential successors, it was relying upon Zenith Z-150 computers from the early 1980s.
The resulting reorganization was the largest government restructuring since the beginning of Cold War when the National Security Act of 1947 had created the modern Pentagon, the CIA, and other entities. The thinking was that by bringing together so many resources focused on domestic security, emergency planning, preparedness, and intelligence, the nation would be more secure and, in a phrase that became a DHS buzzword, more “resilient.” While the Cabinet department—which officially launched on March 1, 2003, with Ridge as its first secretary—was new, DHS was in many ways just the modern incarnation of the Department of Civil Defense that had been advocated by various committees and officials since the 1950s.
Bush’s first FEMA head, Joe Allbaugh, had argued strongly against including FEMA in DHS, believing that having it report directly to the president helped ensure its capability and authority in a disaster—rearranging the deck chairs threatened all the progress the agency had made over the previous decade. But the original plan for placing FEMA inside DHS had been compelling—the 25-year-old agency would become larger, stronger, and more robust, by combining its existing resources with related offices from the Justice Department and the FBI, as well as the Department of Health and Human Service’s National Disaster Medical System. But none of that happened as planned, and the FEMA that became a component of DHS was actually weaker than it had been as a standalone agency.
The DHS reorganization devastated employee morale and cost FEMA its coveted direct access to the president as it was subsumed into a new Cabinet department. The General Accounting Office had warned against the move, saying, “Concerns have been raised that with the emphasis on terrorism preparedness in the aftermath of September 11th, the transfer of FEMA to DHS may result in decreased emphasis on mitigation of natural hazards. Opponents of the FEMA transfer, such as a former FEMA director [James Lee Witt], said that activities not associated with homeland security would suffer if relocated to a large department dedicated essentially to issues of homeland security.”
The new focus on terrorism preparedness led FEMA to pour resources into its secret continuity planning—including taking some steps so blindingly obvious that it seemed horrifying that they hadn’t been taken already. In December 2003 FEMA put 300 of its staff through a little-publicized exercise known as QUIET STRENGTH, where its emergency group relocated to Mount Weather. It was the first time that FEMA had ever run a full exercise of even its own ability to notify, evacuate, and relocate its own emergency workers.
The following spring, in May 2004, a much larger FEMA-led exercise, known as FORWARD CHALLENGE, brought together upward of 2,500 federal officials from 45 different departments and agencies to test emergency preparedness procedures. The exercise began with an imagined suicide bombing on the Washington DC Metro, followed by the death of three Cabinet secretaries leaving an event at the National Press Club. Then hackers began an attack on government computers systems, air traffic control networks, and even the nation’s power grid. That evening, a person playing the president activated continuity of government measures.
But it was clear FEMA wasn’t in good shape to respond if a disaster other than a terrorist attack hit. A July 2004 exercise, aimed at responding to a mid-level Category 3 hurricane hitting New Orleans, left agency officials fearful of how poorly FEMA had performed, and DHS budget cuts for the upcoming year left the agency unable to address many of the fixes it wanted to institute.
In the summer of 2004, a year before Hurricane Katrina, senior FEMA officials were warning that the nation’s need to restore balance between the new focus on counterterrorism and more run-of-the-mill natural disasters. “We are now letting terrorism overshadow our preparedness and response to natural disaster,” one official said. Under the Bush administration, the agency had also once again become home to a wide variety of seemingly inexperienced political appointees.
One FEMA union leader complained to Congress, that “emergency managers at FEMA have been supplanted on the job by politically connected contractors and by novice employees with little background or knowledge.” FEMA itself was undergoing an identity crisis, as DHS officials tried to discourage the use of the agency’s initials and instead referred to it as EP&R, the “Emergency Preparedness and Response” directorate for DHS, and its longstanding “Federal Response Plan,” the guidebook for responding to disasters, had been replaced by a DHS-written version known as the National Response Plan that badly blurred lines of authority.
In the end, the only arm of the federal government with the resources, logistics, and manpower necessary to help on a massive scale—the US military—had to step in. The scenes of the swaggering, beret-wearing Lt. General Russel L. Honoré marching into New Orleans restored confidence in an incompetent-seeming national and state government. As the Army commander said himself, he tried to “present a voice of calm and reason when the politicians could not.” And his voice was backed up by hundreds of troops and heavy war materiel. “Brown was a coordinator, not a commander, and had few resources at his immediate disposal. He was a cowboy hat with no cattle,” Honoré said later.
When Barack Obama took control of the executive branch, he tried to restore some of the prestige and emphasis on competence, appointing as FEMA’s head a seasoned emergency manager, Craig Fugate.But he didn’t follow through on his campaign pledge to elevate the job to Cabinet-level. In recent years, FEMA has continued to build out its preparedness infrastructure; it now runs eight major logistics centers scattered across the country, as well as 50 additional supply caches belonging to its National Disaster Medical System and 252 pre-positioned containers of disaster supplies scattered across 14 states. It has nearly 750,000 square feet of warehouses in two locations outside Washington, DC, alone.
The agency’s secret facilities continue to exist in plain sight. On its website you’ll find a fact sheet on “Mt. Weather Emergency Operations Center” that lists a lot of mundane details about its motor pool and 280-seat café but nothing about the massive underground city buried in the greenstone mountain. Instead, it offers a single throwaway line that’d be easy to overlook if you didn’t know what it really meant: “The MWEOC supports a variety of disaster response and continuity missions, mostly classified.”
At Mount Weather, where FEMA still runs regular emergency preparedness seminars and conferences, personnel and authorized visitors can gather in the Balloon Shed Lounge, a little bar in one of the aboveground buildings whose name hints at the facility’s origins as a weather station. There, officials drink beer and wine, eat popcorn, and relax with a game of foosball or pool. Upstairs, a larger cafeteria serves the facility’s masses, both permanent staff and conference attendees alike.
Today, FEMA still spends tens of millions on its continuity programs—the unclassified portion of that budget is around $50 million a year. Mount Weather, whose annual operating costs are more than $30 million a year, is in the midst of what FEMA calls “a significant infrastructure upgrade to replace old infrastructure, correct life/safety items, upgrade IT, and develop a more resilient facility capable of supporting 21st century technology and current federal departments and agencies requirements.” The modern successor to the Emergency Broadcast System, known as IPAWS, last year saw $1.5 million in upgrades for the broadcasting facilities at WLS AM-890, Chicago’s big talk radio station and one of the designated “Presidential Entry Points” for FEMA’s emergency messages. The upgrade is designed to protect the commercial station against an electromagnetic pulse. It is just one part of FEMA’s nationwide broadcast network, which it promises can “reach and communicate with over 90 percent of the US population under all operating environments.”
But it’s clear that the Trump administration isn’t necessarily giving FEMA any more respect than previous administrations: Months before Hurricane Harvey, the administration proposed a budget for DHS that included an 11 percent cut for FEMA to help pay for the border wall.