War Stories

$41 Billion, and Not a Penny of Foresight

Why is the New Orleans recovery going so badly? Just look at the DHS budget.

Chertoff: not budgeted for success

As Tim Naftali wrote in Slate yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security just flunked its first test. The question now—to ensure that things go better next time—is: Why? Was it simply that the storm’s magnitude would have overwhelmed even the best-laid plans? Or is there something about DHS—a conglomerate of 22 federal departments and agencies mushed together in the desperate wake of 9/11—that compounds the normal sluggishness of large bureaucracies?

To understand why DHS is underperforming on the Gulf Coast, and why it won’t improve soon, the best place to start is how it spends its money. There is no clearer window on a bureaucracy’s culture than its budget, so let’s look inside the DHS’s 100-page budget book for fiscal year 2006.

The first thing to note is that, contrary to official rhetoric, this is not a department infused with urgency. The budget proposed for next year is only a hair larger than the budget approved for this year. ($41.02 billion in FY 2005, $41.07 billion in FY 2006.)

As for addressing disasters, the budget’s more than a hair smaller. The DHS agency in charge of liaison with local emergency-planning outfits—the Office of State and Local Government Coordination and Preparedness—has had its budget cut by more than $600 million in the last two years (from $4.2 billion in FY 2004 to $4 billion in FY 2005 to a proposed $3.6 billion in FY 2006). This is one of just two DHS agencies that faces a budget cut, and it’s the only one to be cut two years in a row.

Another line item that leaps off the page is the “pre-disaster mitigation fund and national flood mitigation fund.” This is a “competitive grant program to assist states and communities to reach a higher level of risk management and risk reduction through planning and mitigation actions taken before disasters occur,” and thus to “provide for a reduction to the risk to lives, to structures, and to critical infrastructure from natural hazards.”

This program seems ready-made for a city like New Orleans. It gets a $58 million boost in next year’s budget (from $120 million to $178 million)—but that merely restores the $49 million cut that it suffered in this year’s.

Part of the problem is the consolidation of FEMA—an agency that deals with natural disasters—into a superagency set up primarily to deal with terrorist attacks. The head of FEMA used to be a Cabinet-level job and as such would sit in on meetings of the National Security Council and—at least theoretically—have a direct line to the president. When DHS was created in March 2003, all that was taken away; communiqués, bulletins, alerts, and so forth, from FEMA and 21 other federal departments and agencies, would henceforth be filtered through the secretary of homeland security.

If FEMA had still been an independent body in the days and weeks before Hurricane Katrina struck, would the NSC have been more fully warned of the disaster’s potential scope? A FEMA study in early 2001 pegged a hurricane in New Orleans as one of the three biggest catastrophes that might strike the United States (the others were an earthquake in San Francisco and a terrorist attack in New York). Other specialists had warned that the levees might rupture—a possibility that neither the president nor his advisers apparently foresaw.

But there is a scarier question still to consider: How ready is DHS for the disaster that its officials have been focused on the last two and a half years? If New Orleans’ levees had been broken not by a hurricane but by terrorists’ bombs, the nightmares we see now—the lack of planning and therefore of food, water, transportation, shelter, and public order—would be no different. And yet the Department of Homeland Security had scant little to deal with it, either on hand or ready for quick mobilization, and nothing in the 2006 budget suggests it will be any readier next year, whether for a hurricane or another 9/11.