Hurricane Katrina

(Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed)

Hurricanes, wildfires and earthquakes — is the Federal Emergency Management Agency ready for the new era of disasters?

I’m a professor of public administration and policy at Virginia Tech, and I’ve written a book explaining why expectations of this agency are so high — unrealistically so.

After Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, the emergency manager of Dade County, Florida famously asked the media, “Where in the hell is the cavalry?” after her requests for aid from FEMA went unanswered. Picking up on the anger, some members of Congress wanted to abolish the agency as punishment for its poor response.

FEMA survived, but it came under blistering criticism again after Hurricane Katrina killed 1,833 people and caused more than US$100 million in damage.

The response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma has gone much more smoothly — at least so far. So what has changed with FEMA since Katrina?

5 things that have changed

1. Leadership

Presidents learned the importance of placing experienced emergency managers in charge of FEMA. During the Katrina disaster, President George W. Bush told FEMA Director Michael Brown, “you’re doing a heck of a job.” Ten days later, Brown resigned in …read more


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