A crucial question to be asked in the coming slew of investigations: Did the Department of Homeland Security do such a dreadful job on Hurricane Katrina because of incompetent officials and insufficient funds—or because of the organization and incentives of the DHS itself? Is it enough to make heads roll and budgets swell—or does the whole department need a structural overhaul?
Personnel and money were certainly among the problems. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff is by all accounts a superb prosecutor, but he’s never run a large, multifaceted organization, and Katrina has raised questions about his attention span. He seems to have been oblivious to the reports of mayhem at the evacuation centers until hearing about them on the radio or television—and, even then, hours or days after the reports were first broadcast. Then again, Chertoff is a demigod compared with Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who’s had no relevant experience whatsoever, and whose last private-sector job was as commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association (from which he was apparently fired).
Within FEMA, budgets were slashed two years running for the office that coordinates disaster-relief and preparedness with state and local agencies. The Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains floodgates, among other things, was also denied urgent requests for increases. One of the few high-level officials whom President George W. Bush has ever fired was Mike Parker, the assistant secretary of the Army for public works, after he testified before Congress in March 2002 about the disastrous effects of budget cuts on the Army Corps of Engineers’ water projects.
There is also the matter of Hurricane Pam, a “tabletop exercise” conducted by FEMA in 2004, involving more than 250 federal, state, and local officials, simulating the aftermath of a hurricane and flood in New Orleans remarkably similar to what really took place after Katrina. The exercise uncovered problems with transportation, shelter, and—based on a telephone survey—the refusal by a large number of the city’s poorer residents to evacuate. Yet nothing was done, no money was spent, to address these problems. A follow-up exercise was scheduled for the summer of 2005—but it had to be canceled due to lack of funds.
Still, it’s too easy to blame the sluggish response entirely on a shortfall of money and talent—commodities that are scarce, after all, in governments everywhere. It’s also necessary to look at the organization in which these people are working, particularly at the incentives—the set of rewards and punishments—that shape their behavior.
The Department of Homeland Security, it is worth recalling, was a political football and a bit of a sham from the outset. It was proposed in late 2001 by Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman as a way to show that the Republican White House wasn’t alone in trying to tackle terrorism—that the Democratic Congress had a grander view of the problem and a grander solution to match. Initially, President Bush opposed the idea, saying it would just pile on another bureaucratic layer. Former White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer made the point at a news conference on March 19, 2002:
There are more than a dozen agencies … which have components that deal with homeland security in one form or another. … Even if you took half of them out and put them under a Cabinet-level Office of Homeland Security, the White House would still need … an advisor on how to coordinate all that myriad of activities. … So creating a Cabinet office doesn’t solve the problem.
The president already had such a coordinator in the White House-based homeland security adviser. That would be good enough.
By June 2002, news began to break on the intelligence failures that led to 9/11, especially on the lack of coordination between the FBI and the CIA. At least in part to regain the initiative, President Bush endorsed the Department of Homeland Security and signed it into law in November of that year.
Still, Fleischer had a point back at that March news conference: How was a Cabinet official supposed to control or coordinate such far-flung activities? The politics that shaped the composition of the new department only intensified the challenge. Those who argued that better coordination might have prevented 9/11 made the claim only in regard to the intelligence communities. Yet none of the intelligence agencies were incorporated into the Department of Homeland Security. The FBI, CIA, DIA, NSA, and so forth were powerful enough to stave off assimilation. (Similarly, an early draft of Bush’s bill placed the Department of Energy’s weapons labs inside DHS, but they, too, had enough powerful sponsors to retain their independence.)
A small shop like FEMA lacked the clout to resist the quicksand.
It made a certain sense to bundle Customs, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Transportation Security Administration into a unified Directorate of Border and Transportation Security (one of five directorates in the DHS). However, it may not have made so much sense to bury FEMA, which dealt primarily with natural disasters, inside a subset (the Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response) of a department whose primary mission—whose entire reason for existence—was to prevent, reduce the vulnerability to, and recover from a terrorist attack.
This is where organizational incentives come in. You’re an official at FEMA. Your director used to be a Cabinet officer who attended meetings of the National Security Council and had direct access to the president. Now the director is an undersecretary and the directorate’s mission is explicitly a sideshow. When a warning goes out about the vulnerability to a hurricane, it’s barely noticed—and there’s no way to take your concerns to the top. You’re also keenly aware of Mike Parker’s fate: Raise too much of a stink about the administration’s neglect, and you’ll be fired. Where is the reward for enterprise, enthusiasm, or creativity? Where is the penalty for just muddling through a day’s work?
The main point is this: There won’t be big improvements until top management—which in this case must mean the White House—offers incentives to improve.