Zeitoun FEMA and Hurricane Katrina

There are numerous portrayals of government inefficiency in Zeitoun. Although these anecdotes are powerful in themselves, they do not paint a complete picture without a full understanding of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, which fell under intense scrutiny in the months and years after the disaster.

The preparation and response to Hurricane Katrina was overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which handles the response to large disasters when local authorities are unable to provide full resources needed. President Carter created FEMA in 1979 by integrating several agencies to form one body that could coordinate preparatory and relief efforts. In the event of a predicted natural disaster, a state's governor may file an official request for FEMA aid with the president. Within the letter, the governor assesses the financial, manpower and infrastructure needs based on the severity of the event and the state's existing resources. The regional division of FEMA that includes the state requesting aid makes the determination of need and the president, at that point, is able to authorize help based on the suggestions of the local agency. Despite the federally-provided resources, the government is not meant to take over the disaster area; the state retains control while executive orders can be invoked if necessary, in the direst of circumstances. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/government_programs/july-dec05/fema_09-09.html

In 2003, FEMA--previously an independent agency--was integrated within the Department of Homeland Security, which helps explain the concern of some officials in Zeitoun about terrorist attacks in the aftermath of the catastrophe. This also had broader consequences: three-quarters of FEMA's disaster-preparedness grants were now directed to counterterrorism rather than natural disaster response (Schneider).

The agency was criticized primarily for ineffectiveness and for slowing down the efforts of other agencies (as well as civilian volunteers) to help after the hurricane. It urged authorities from other states not to send help to affected areas without the proper authorization from state and local organizations (http://www.fema.gov/news/newsrelease.fema?id=18470). Others criticized FEMA for the relative inexperience of its directors--the co-directors Joe M. Albaugh and Michael Brown had only two years of experience each at the agency. Furthermore, neither of them had managed a natural disaster before (Schneider).

Despite Governor Kathleen Blanco's request for aid, filed August 28th, federal assistance did not formally arrive until days after Katrina's landfall. Communication breakdowns on both the local and national levels as well as inadequately trained responders were the main criticisms of the lack of leadership. FEMA's slow and controversial response to the hurricane reflected poorly on the organization and on the federal government as a whole. Commentators wrote at the time that the hurricane tarnished President George W. Bush's popularity (Purdum and Connelly). The fiasco also inspired a government inquiry, and drew sharp denunciation of FEMA's policy of tying disaster-preparedness funding to counterterrorism funding.

Even years after Hurricane Katrina, several Louisiana residents continued to criticize the persistent leadership breakdowns and abuse of FEMA. In 2009, The New York Times reported that homeless residents who had initially received temporary trailers to house them after the devastation of their property were losing shelters despite the continued need. Some 4,000 residents received aid money nearly 4 years late and FEMA failed to build the promised "Katrina cottages" meant to replace the trailers as temporary homes for displaced residents. (Dewan) FEMA's relationship with the American public continues to be complex, complicated and criticized.