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Context of 'March 2004: Former FEMA Director Warns that US Is No Longer Prepared to Respond Effectively to Disasters'

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During the 1990s, FEMA’s response plan for responding to a potential major hurricane in New Orleans provides that it would pre-deploy ships with hospital facilities and ships with pumps that could assist in the dewatering of the city, according to former FEMA Director James Lee Witt. [Knight Ridder, 9/1/2005]

Entity Tags: Federal Emergency Management Agency

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

The Clinton administration reorganizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), shifting resources away from secret projects and into disaster relief programs. During the previous two administrations, FEMA’s resources were overwhelmingly geared towards the highly classified Continuity of Government program, meant to keep the government functioning in times of extreme national emergency (see April 1, 1979-Present). The changes to the disaster agency are prompted by strong criticism of FEMA’s response to Hurricane Andrew (see August-September 1992). The secret COG programs are scaled back, but not totally discontinued. The newly appointed director of FEMA, James Lee Witt, eliminates FEMA’s secretive National Preparedness Directorate and shifts its responsibilities to other sections of the disaster agency. FEMA’s budget shows a dramatic drop in funding for secret projects, from about $100 million in 1993 to only $7.5 million in 1994. “What [Director Witt has] done is put FEMA in an all-hazards approach and put it aboveboard,” says FEMA spokesperson Morrie Goodman. “There are, of course,” Goodman adds, “certain areas that can’t be discussed or even acknowledged. That’s just the nature of the beast.” Indeed, uncertainties remain regarding the true extent of FEMA’s reformation. As Mother Jones magazine notes, the reduced classified budget “reflects only a fragment of FEMA’s investment in doomsday preparations, given that many former projects have been redesignated as ‘dual-use’ responses for both natural disasters and national security emergencies.” According to Mother Jones, “much of the doomsday bureaucracy remains intact, parts of the fifth floor are still restricted, and there has been no concerted effort to declassify the underground command posts.” Government officials will claim in 1994 that the COG program is coming to a total end (see April 18, 1994), but FEMA will continue to pursue its secret agenda for years to come (see April 1, 1979-Present). [National Academy of Public Administration, 2/1993 pdf file; Gup and Aftergood, 1/1994; New York Times, 4/18/1994; Sylves, 5/1994]

Entity Tags: James Lee Witt, Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Preparedness Directorate, Clinton administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

President Clinton declares a state of emergency for Oklahoma City. Attorney Janet Reno is at the left.President Clinton declares a state of emergency for Oklahoma City. Attorney Janet Reno is at the left. [Source: The Oklahoman]In a live television press conference, President Clinton addresses the nation regarding the morning’s bombing in Oklahoma City (see 8:35 a.m. - 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995). He says: “The bombing in Oklahoma City was an attack on innocent children and defenseless citizens. It was an act of cowardice and it was evil. The United States will not tolerate it. And I will not allow the people of this country to be intimidated by evil cowards. I have met with our team which we assembled to deal with this bombing, and I have determined to take the following steps to assure the strongest response to this situation. First, I have deployed a crisis management under the leadership of the FBI (see After 9:02 a.m., April 19, 1995), working with the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, military and local authorities. We are sending the world’s finest investigators to solve these murders. Second, I have declared an emergency in Oklahoma City. And at my direction, James Lee Witt, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is now on his way there to make sure we do everything we can to help the people of Oklahoma deal with the tragedy. Third, we are taking every precaution to reassure and to protect people who work in or live near other federal facilities. Let there be no room for doubt. We will find the people who did this. When we do, justice will be swift, certain, and severe. These people are killers and they must be treated like killers. Finally, let me say that I ask all Americans tonight to pray, to pray for the people who have lost their lives, to pray for the families and the friends of the dead and the wounded, to pray for the people of Oklahoma City. May God’s grace be with them. Meanwhile, we will be about our work. Thank you.” Clinton asks Americans to pray for the victims. Attorney General Janet Reno follows Clinton in the conference, and says, “The death penalty is available and we will seek it.” She refuses to speculate on whether the date of the bombing—the two-year anniversary of the Branch Davidian tragedy (see April 19, 1993 and April 19, 1993 and After)—is a coincidence or something more. “We are pursuing all leads,” she says. “This has been a tragic and heartbreaking day.… We cannot tell you how long it will be before we can say with certainty what occurred and who is responsible but we will find the perpetrators and we will bring them to justice.” At another time during the same day, Clinton tells a Des Moines reporter: “I was sick all day long. All of us have been looking at the scene where those children were taken out, and all of us were seeing our own children there. This is an awful, awful thing.” [PBS, 4/19/1995; Los Angeles Times, 4/20/1995; Associated Press, 4/20/1995; Serrano, 1998, pp. 187] Clinton press secretary Michael “Mack” McCurry later credits Clinton for putting an end to what he will call “the anti-Arab hysteria that almost swept this country. Because remember, in the first several hours, everyone was pointing fingers at Arab terrorists (see 10:00 a.m. April 19, 1995 and After and April 19, 1995), which turned out to be obviously wrong.” [PBS Frontline, 2000]

Entity Tags: US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Lee Witt, Michael (“Mack”) McCurry, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, US Department of Justice, Janet Reno

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

FEMA director James Lee Witt announces Project Impact, under which FEMA will foster partnerships between federal, state, and local emergency workers, as well as local businesses, to help individual communities reduce their vulnerability to certain types of natural disasters. Describing the new initiative, FEMA Director James Lee Witt says, “Our goal, starting with this summit, is to change the way America prevents and prepares for disasters. We’ve got to break the damage-repair-damage-repair cycle.” Project Impact is part of a broader mitigation program aimed at reducing the $14 billion in federal dollars spent annually on disaster relief. Witt says that prevention is necessary because of the apparent increased severity and frequency of natural disasters. [San Francisco Chronicle, 10/15/1997; Independent Weekly, 9/22/2004] Project Impact becomes the agency’s highest profile program. “In Seattle, Washington, for example, the grants [are] used to retrofit schools, bridges, and houses at risk from earthquakes. In Pascagoula, Mississippi, the project [funds] the creation of a database of structures in the local flood plain—crucial information for preparing mitigation plans. In several eastern North Carolina communities, it [helps] fund and coordinate buyouts of houses in flood-prone areas.” [Independent Weekly, 9/22/2004]

Entity Tags: James Lee Witt, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Project Impact

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

Former FEMA director James Lee Witt tells Congress: “I am extremely concerned that the ability of our nation to prepare for and respond to disasters has been sharply eroded. I hear from emergency managers, local and state leaders, and first responders nearly every day that the FEMA they knew and worked well with has now disappeared. In fact one state emergency manager told me, ‘It is like a stake has been driven into the heart of emergency management.’” [Independent Weekly, 9/22/2004; Reuters, 9/2/2005]

Entity Tags: James Lee Witt, Federal Emergency Management Agency

Timeline Tags: Hurricane Katrina

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