The early and mid-1980’s presented FEMA with many challenges, though no significant natural disasters occurred. The absence of the need for a coherent Federal response to disasters, as was called for by Congress when it approved the establishment of FEMA, allowed FEMA to exist and operate as an organization composed of many separate parts.
In 1982, President Reagan appointed General Louis O. Guiffrida as Director of FEMA. Mr. Guiffrida, a Californian and close friend of Presidential advisor Ed Meese, had a background in terrorism preparedness and training at the State government level.
General Guiffrida proceeded to reorganize FEMA consistent with Administration policies and his background; top priority was placed on government preparedness for a nuclear attack. Resources within the Agency were realigned and additional budget authority was sought to enhance and elevate the National Security responsibilities of the Agency. With no real role for the States in these National Security activities, the State Directors who had lobbied for the creation of FEMA saw their authority and Federal funding declining.
During Guiffrida’s tenure FEMA faced several unusual challenges that stretched its authority. This included asserting FEMA into the lead role for continuity of civilian government in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, managing the Federal response to the contamination at Love Canal and Times Beach, Missouri, and the Cuban refugee crisis. Although Guifridda managed to bring the Agency physically together in a new Headquarters Building in Southwest Washington, severe morale problems persisted.
Dislike of Guiffrida’s style and questions about the Agency’s operations came to the attention of U.S. Representative Al Gore of Tennessee who then served on the House Science and Technology Committee. As the Congressional hearings proceeded, the Department of Justice and a grand jury began investigations of senior political officials at FEMA. These inquiries led to the resignation of Guiffrida and top aides in response to a variety of charges including misuse of government funds.
President Reagan then selected General Julius Becton to be director of FEMA. General Becton was a retired military General and had been the Director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance in the State Department.
General Becton is uniformly credited with restoring integrity to the operations and appropriations of the Agency. From a policy standpoint, he continued to emphasize the programs of his predecessor but in a less visible manner. Becton himself expanded the duties of FEMA when he was asked by DOD to take over the program dealing with the off-site cleanup of chemical stockpiles on DOD bases. This program was fraught with problems and bad feelings existed between the communities and the bases over the funds available to the communities for the cleanup. FEMA had minimal technical expertise to administer this program and was dependent on DOD/Army for the funding. This situation led to political problems for the Agency and prevented significant advancements in local emergency management operations (as had been promised by DOD).
During his tenure, General Becton ranked the programs in the FEMA by level of importance. Of over 20 major programs that were listed, the earthquake, hurricane and flood programs ranked near the bottom. In reaction to the absence of any significant natural hazards during the immediately preceding years, such a ranking did not come as a surprise. This fact is also noteworthy in the context that it continued the pattern of isolating resources for National Security priorities without recognizing the potential for a major natural disaster.
This issue was raised, again by then Senator Al Gore, in hearings on FEMA’s responsibilities as lead Agency for the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP). Senator Gore, reacting to a scientific report that said there could be up to 200,000 casualties from an earthquake occurring on the New Madrid fault, felt FEMA’s priorities were misplaced. The legislation that created the NEHRP called on FEMA to develop a plan for how the Federal government would respond to a catastrophic earthquake. This Federal Response Plan would later become the operating Bible for all of the Federal agencies response operations. Senator Gore concluded that FEMA needed to spend more time working with its Federal, State and local partners on natural hazards planning.
As Congress debated, and finally passed, major reform of federal disaster policy as part of the Stewart McKinney-Robert Stafford Act, the promise of FEMA and its ability to support a national emergency management system remained in doubt.
At the closing of the 1980’s, FEMA was an Agency in trouble. It suffered from severe morale problems, disparate leadership, and conflicts over Agency spending and priorities with its partners at the State and local levels. In 1989, the occurrence of two devastating natural disasters called into question the continued existence of FEMA.
In September of 1989, Hurricane Hugo slammed into North Carolina and South Carolina, after first inflicting damage in both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. It was the worst hurricane in a decade with over $15 billion in damages and 85 deaths. FEMA was slow to respond, having waited for the events to occur and for the Governors to decide what to do. South Carolina Senator Ernest Hollings personally called the FEMA Director and asked for help, but the Agency did so at a very slow pace. Hollings responded by appearing on national television to berate FEMA in a most colorful way, calling the Agency the “sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses”.
Less than a month later, the Bay Area of California was rocked by the Loma Prieta Earthquake as the 1989 World Series got underway in Oakland Stadium. The response was equally slow and, likewise, criticized.
In August 1992, within months of each other, Hurricane Andrew struck Florida and Louisiana and Hurricane Iniki struck Hawaii . FEMA was clearly unprepared, as were FEMA’s partners at the State level. The Agency’s failure to respond was witnessed by Americans across the entire country as major news organizations documented the crisis. The efficacy of FEMA as the national emergency response agency was clearly in doubt. President Bush dispatched then Secretary of Transportation, Andrew Card to take over the response operation, which was tasked to the military.