As the waters began to recede in New Orleans, the Federal Emergency Management Agency began to weather a political storm over its slow response to the disaster that struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005.

Eventually, the director of FEMA was sacked by a furious President Bush, who in private was reportedly angered by the lackadaisical response by FEMA.

Anyone who thought FEMA was merely overwhelmed by the worst natural disaster in modern times to hit the United States might want to reconsider.

Despite more than two weeks of grassfires that have destroyed dozens of homes and buildings, not to mention used up rickety equipment volunteer fire departments depend on to fight fires, FEMA is still lagging behind the curve of events.

In a story carried in The Tulsa World, Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, said Saturday he couldn’t tell people if or when a federal emergency would be declared.

As pointed out by critics following Katrina, local governments, then state governments, are the first line of response in the wake of a disaster. This may or may not have happened in September — Louisiana foundered while Mississippi reacted superbly — but it’s not the case here in Oklahoma. Local governments, county governments, the state government, are already online, offering what assistance they can, fighting fires, saving lives.

The bigger issues, which require bigger funds, are those left to FEMA: rebuilding homes destroyed by the fire and owned by people without insurance, or rebuilding businesses through grants from the Small Business Administration.

Certainly, the state could have agencies to handle these kinds of events, but all that kind of redundancy does is cost taxpayers more money. Local governments attack the immediate problems, the feds come in and deal with the big aftermath. It worked well after the 1999 tornado, it worked well in 2004 when hurricane after hurricane smashed through Florida.

That FEMA has suddenly developed a tortoise-like response to disasters is troubling. After all, FEMA is part of the Department of Homeland Defense, which is supposed to react — and react swiftly — in case of a major terror attack against the United States. But we’re not talking about biological warfare or turning jetliners into missiles, we’re talking about storms and grass fires.

FEMA’s performance does not bode well for Americans if and when terrorists manage to make a major strike on the United States.


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