TrendIn post-Katrina shift, DHS to consider risk of natural disasters in grants to cities

Published 3 January 2006

When DHS absorbed FEMA in 2003, the agency was marginalized, the quality of its leadership declined, and its emphasis on natural disasters was eclipsed by the new emphasis on terrorism; DHS is now trying to recreate an agency with more balance between terrorism and natural disasters

Much has been written about the systematic weakening of FEMA as a result of its absorption into the newly created DHS in 2003. As a recent detailed Washington Post report chronicles, the rapid decline of the agency owed to a series of defeats the unpopular Michael Brown suffered in his protracted battles with DHS secretary Tom Ridge, and to a string of appointments of politically connected individuals with questionable qualifications to run the agency. Both resulted in an exodus of experienced and professional managers who refused to work for an increasingly marginalized agency. Any agency would have been the weaker for all of this, but what did not help was the fact that DHS, as a result of the post-9/11 climate, emphasized preparations for terrorist attacks over preparations for natural disasters, FEMA’s original raison d’etre. FEMA dysfunctional performance before and during Katrina was thus the inevitable and widely predicted, not least by Brown himself, consequence of very specific decisions made at DHS during 2003 and 2004.

The good thing is that the lesson has not been lost on DHS. The department is now looking to shift competitive bidding for federal grants, directing money to cities which face a wide range of threats, not only threats from terrorists. The change was outlined in departmental documents sent to state and local officials, addressing both the destruction and lack of preparedness in evidence during Hurricane Katrina. It also reflects DHS secretary Michael Chertoff’s efforts to give his department more of an all-hazards mission, a fancy term for creating more of a balance between defenses against terrorism and preparation for a natural disaster. The shift will be outlined later today when Chertoff unveils which cities will receive part of $765 million in annual Urban Area Security Initiative grants. In the past two years the grants typically have gone to the nation’s fifty largest cities for terror-related security measures. Chertoff will announce today that this year, cities at risk for being hit by a natural disaster or a health crisis would also be eligible.

The sum of $765 million DHS will be distributing to cities in 2006 is smaller than the $829 million in urban area grants the department disbursed last year. The largest recipient last year was New York City with $207 million. The smallest was Louisville, Kentucky, with $5 million.

-read more in this AP report; and in Eric Lipton’s New York Times story ; for the sad story of FEMA decline see Michael Grunwald’s and Susan Glasser’s, rown’s Turf Wars Sapped FEMA’s Strength, in the Washington Post of 23 December 2005; see also their department’s Mission Was Undermined From Start in the Washington Post of 22 December 2005.