Tuesday, May 5, 2009

An Analysis of FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina

As Hurricane season 2009 approaches, here is a little look at the past, specifically, the Hurricane Katrina disaster and FEMA's terrible response, written by yours truly of course.

This treatise will analyze FEMA’s poor response to the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina and propose changes to FEMA’s organizational structure and culture. Although FEMA is not solely responsible for the poor government response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (state and local governments were also dysfunctional), the scope of this analysis is on FEMA’s response and how they can better themselves for responding to future disasters of similar magnitude.

Most of us are familiar with the tragedy that occurred on the Gulf Coast of the United States on August 29th, 2005 when Hurricane Katrina came ashore. The media was full of pictures and reports depicting complete devastation on the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi. Making matters astronomically more devastating, the levees of New Orleans failed at approximately 11am CDT and inundated the city of New Orleans under more than 20 feet of water in some neighborhoods. The death toll is now at least 1,836 and the damage from $71 to $130 billion, topping Hurricane Andrew as the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history and one of the deadliest to hit the United States.[i] FEMA struggled to manage this disaster and failed to move quickly or effectively enough to mitigate the disaster and help the one million people displaced by one of the most powerful storms to ever be recorded in the Atlantic. What caused FEMA to respond so poorly in New Orleans? FEMA’s organizational structure carries most of the blame due largely to its enormous bureaucracy. FEMA’s organizational structure must change to meet the demands of its dynamic and uncertain environment. In addition, employees on the ground must be empowered to act and make decisions to overcome the unique and challenging problems that they will face in the future.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has been around in one form or another since the 19th century. However, the FEMA we know today was first instituted by an executive order by President Carter in 1979. This order merged more than 100 federal agencies like the Federal Insurance Administration and the National Fire Prevention and Control Administration enabling the federal government to more effectively manage national disasters. FEMA is tasked with responding to, planning for, recovering from and mitigating against disasters. Its mission statement reads, “to lead America to prepare for, prevent, respond to and recover from disasters with a vision of "A Nation Prepared."”[ii] Never was this vision so contrary to reality than during the major disaster in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina. One aspect of FEMA many people do not understand, however, is that they organize and lead disaster relief, they don’t own the emergency equipment for it. Former FEMA Director Michael Brown stated in front of a House Committee as part of his defense, "Guess what, FEMA doesn't own fire trucks; we don't own ambulances; we don't own search-and-rescue equipment. [...]. FEMA is a coordinating agency. We are not a law enforcement agency."[iii]

The merging of government agencies shifted the power to a focused point of centralization. This centralization continued to grow as FEMA also absorbed many redundant and parallel state and local agencies that existed at the time. This is one of FEMA’s weaknesses that lead to the slow and inadequate response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. The over centralization made it so FEMA’s top management was making the organization’s key decisions with little or no input from lower-level personnel. Congressman Shays stated that he believed, “FEMA suffers from bureaucratic fatigue with a command structure that is not decentralized to allow people on the ground to make decisions.” With a centralization of power it became more difficult for FEMA to make quick decisions to help with the disaster relief as it became very apparent in New Orleans. Typically, the operations managers that are at “ground zero” have more detailed knowledge about problems because they are close to the action. FEMA was out of touch with its people on the ground and this over centralization of decision power is one of the negative bureaucratic traits FEMA must change in order to become effective again.

Not only did FEMA have over centralization of decision power, but its top managers were largely inexperienced in emergency management. Michael Brown (former FEMA Director) and Patrick Rhode (former FEMA Deputy Director) were not only inexperienced, but friends of President Bush and appointed to their positions without any relevant credentials for their FEMA positions. To make matters worse, FEMA had seen an exodus of experienced officials over the past four years. When Katrina struck, there were three senior executive positions still vacant. Many believe this exodus was caused when FEMA was placed under the Department of Homeland Security and then downgraded even further to a branch of DHS. That change appears to have radically transformed the psychological contracts that employees had with the former FEMA organization causing them to feel disgruntled and the desire to leave. With that “brain drain” of experienced officials and apparent lack of knowledge retention coupled with the failure of state and local governments to respond, FEMA was left high and dry and unable to act effectively.

This shift to DHS may seem logical at first since responding to a terrorist attack has a lot in common with responding to a natural disaster. In spite of this, however, DHS failed to build on top of the existing emergency response infrastructure of FEMA and terrorism became a new and largely separate focus. In a Government Accountability Office report, more than 75% of the agency’s preparedness grants for next year are targeted to state and local readiness for terrorism.[iv] This conflict of focus is a natural result of the addition of another layer of bureaucracy because of the merging of DHS and FEMA.

Before FEMA was assimilated by DHS, they were an independent agency with direct accountability to the president. With DHS now on top of FEMA, the chain of command and organizational hierarchy became more ambiguous. With a more nebulous chain of command FEMA employees began to lose sight of FEMA’s mission because of their inability to clearly answer, “Who am I responsible to, FEMA, DHS or the President?” Jane Bullock, former FEMA Director during the Clinton Administration stated during an interview with CBS News in regards to FEMA’s relief efforts during the Hurricane Katrina disaster, “Who’s in charge? Is it FEMA Director Mike Brown? Is it Chertoff (DHS Director)? You don’t really know. And I think that’s going to be a continuing and even worse problem as we get into the recovery…”[v] FEMA’s identity crisis, caused by a vague chain of command and role conflict, is one of the major contributing factors of its ineptitude shown during the Katrina crisis. Since 9/11 the focus has been on terrorism and that is the focus of DHS. FEMA became swept up in this vision and lost its focus on covering all disasters.

In addition to FEMA’s vague chain of command and role conflict, FEMA’s organizational hierarchy became larger and more complex when they were merged with DHS. What this means is more levels of middle management with managers having oversight over fewer employees appeared. Although manager’s can maintain tighter control of their employees this way, it also makes vertical communication in the organization more complex, slows down decision making, isolates upper management and discourages employee autonomy. All of which contributed to FEMA’s failed response. From the pages of email and memos subpoenaed by a House panel, it becomes clear that there was bureaucratic chaos running ramped in FEMA throughout the entire ordeal until Chertoff finally placed Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen in charge of relief efforts. A few excerpts from emails the top FEMA official in Mississippi sent gives a small taste of this chaos, “We are getting less than 25 percent of what we have been requesting from HQ daily.“ When asked where FEMA Director Michael Brown was he responded, “Not here in MS (Mississippi). Is in LA (Louisiana) as far as I know.”[vi]

So, why did FEMA fail during Katrina and not during other past disasters? The explanation to this question is the same explanation for the majority of FEMA’s woes; they are a monstrosity of a bureaucracy and displayed all the negative attributes of being such. The primary strength of a bureaucracy is its ability to perform standardized activities in a highly efficient manner. They function well with problems that are “run of the mill” and because of this they can get away with hiring less talented/experienced managers. The rules and regulations substitute for innovative and experienced managers. The drawback is when a situation arises that does not precisely fit the rules, there is no room for modification or innovation. Congressman Shays commented on this saying, “What Mr. Brown didn't realize was that this was such a unique circumstance, he needed to step in, be extraordinarily aggressive, fill in the void left by the incompetence of the state and local government (and FEMA management). He should have taken charge if no one else was.” FEMA’s external operating environment, and even its charter, focuses FEMA on handling dynamic and unique disasters that can hit without notice. Because of this dynamic environment FEMA must operate in, a bureaucratic structure will not work. Bureaucracies perform better in a static environment. When Katrina hit with all of its unique challenges, FEMA’s bureaucratic structure failed.

FEMA’s inability to cope with the Katrina crisis has lead some to suggest giving the responsibility to another organization such as the military. During the Katrina crisis, the Coast Guard was placed in control of relief efforts after FEMA dropped the ball and did a very good job considering the circumstances. Approximately 60,000 National Guard troops helped during the disaster recovery. However, the military is a bureaucracy too. Nevertheless, the military’s vast resources, lightning fast mobility, high formalization (strong culture of discipline), and strong chain of command made this possible, but comes at a $400 billion/year price tag. Due to constitutional issues the military is not a viable solution to the problem. Also, if the military were to take on this responsibility, they risk role conflict by becoming a jack of all trades, master of none. One thing is for sure, FEMA must change if they are to meet their original charter.

My recommendation is for FEMA and DHS to once again be separate agencies. FEMA must be independent of any other agency in order to clarify its chain of command (direct to the President), regain its focus, and cut out the debilitating excess overhead. FEMA should even go as far as to drop its charter for responding to all disasters and focus only on natural disasters, leaving DHS to handle domestic civil defense and terrorist concerns. At the very least, the chain of command must be clearly defined and the enormous organizational hierarchy simplified and shrunk in order for FEMA to begin to be effective again. However, the change needed for FEMA to realize its charter effectively is a revolutionary change not an evolutionary change, thus the recommendation to separate FEMA and DHS.

The organizational structure of FEMA should also change to become more open, transparent, and “organic,” an organization less like a bureaucracy. This would enable FEMA to deregulate itself, tear down vertical, horizontal and external communication and bureaucratic barriers. In line with making FEMA more “organic,” FEMA must become more decentralized, flatten its hierarchy, clarify the chain of command, and utilize cross functional teams to facilitate interdepartmental cooperation with important stakeholders (such as law enforcement agencies).

Another very important recommended change is modifying the culture of FEMA to allow for innovative decentralized decision making by those on the ground and closest to the action. This would provide many benefits to FEMA such as retaining experienced employees through increased job satisfaction, providing faster more relevant actions thereby improving service quality, and even decreasing costs by flattening the organizational hierarchy. Free employees from the bureaucracy and engage their minds and you will resolve problems with impressive speed.[vii] In addition, employees would feel a sense of ownership for their decisions and accountability would be easier to trace. The increased ownership would increase employee motivation and job satisfaction. Employees that welcome empowerment should be the focus for all hiring efforts.

To accomplish empowering the employees it is proposed that FEMA establish a new department that would implement Centers of Excellence for employees. These Centers of Excellence are about providing a strategy and structure that facilitates the growth of people by giving them the opportunity to do their best work. They enable people to use their unique talents and abilities to the best interest of the business or institution, in other words, it empowers them.[viii] The main focus of COEs is to provide the skill sets necessary to employees that concentrate on the core purposes and competencies of an organization. Less focus on transferring control over employees and more focus on empowering those employees through developing those skills that will help them the most in the organization. The key benefit of this organizational principle is that the development of people becomes the important issue, not implementation of projects. With employees being nurtured and developed they are able to perform closer to their inherent potential and this in turn lifts the entire organization to a much more efficient and effective sphere of operation. Ironic that the focus of FEMA is all about people when they have been unable to give the same attention and focus for their own employees. With the COE model in effect, FEMA will be much more capable of retaining experienced employees. In FEMA’s case, the COE model will help them to respond quickly to major disasters with fewer problems that stem from bureaucratic red tape, poor communication between functional groups, and lack of disaster management experience.

In addition to empowering employees, management must become involved with events and problems on the ground. They must be aware of the real issues facing those on the frontlines. This can only be done by changing their perspectives. To accomplish this, managers should get “down and dirty” by engaging with those on the frontlines and working with them on the ground as an additional hand. They must also be doing this in all areas of the organization to get a real bird’s eye view of the entire state of affairs in the organization. With this fresh, “from the balcony” perspective senior managers from all parts of FEMA and DHS (if they determine to remain with DHS) will be able to make much more educated decisions that can greatly benefit the organization.

Katrina’s impact was huge and would have been devastating regardless of FEMA’s ability to respond to emergencies. Nevertheless, FEMA’s bureaucratic organizational structure turned FEMA into something akin to New Orleans’ famous levees; a structure sure to fail when a big disaster struck.[ix] For FEMA to respond to future major disasters they must change their organization to increase flexibility, speed up decision making, cut overhead, and empower employees. Sooner or later another “big one” will hit and FEMA must be ready to act. Hopefully, they have learned these valuable lessons from their big plunder and will streamline their organization to meet any disaster they may face, head on.