FEMA to WEMA
NYT | John Tierney
I don't think Washington needs any more czars. But if President Bush feels compelled to put someone in charge of rebuilding the Gulf Coast, let me suggest a name: Lee Scott.
Scott is the chief executive of Wal-Mart, one of the few institutions to improve its image here after Katrina sent a 15-foot wave across the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. If you mention the Red Cross or FEMA to people in Slidell, you hear rants about help that didn't arrive and phone lines that are always busy. If you mention state or national politicians, you hear obscenities.
But if you visit the Wal-Mart and the Sam's Club stores here, you hear shoppers who have been without power for weeks marveling that there are still generators in stock (and priced at $304.04). You hear about the trucks that rolled in right after the hurricane and the stuff the stores gave away: chain saws and boots for rescue workers, sheets and clothes for shelters, water and ice for the public.
''This was the only place we could find water those first days,'' said Rashan Smith, who was shopping with her three children at Wal-Mart on Saturday. ''I still haven't managed to get through to FEMA. It's hard to say, but you get more justice at Wal-Mart.''
That's the same assessment you hear from public officials in Louisiana, and there's even been talk of letting Wal-Mart take over FEMA's job. The company already has its own emergency operations center, where dozens of people began preparing for the hurricane the week before it hit by moving supplies and trucks into position.
I realize that Scott would not be a popular choice with Democrats. They concede that Wal-Mart and other private companies were far better prepared for Katrina than FEMA was, but they say FEMA would work fine if it were under the control of a virtuous, compassionate public servant -- someone, as Bill Clinton suggested, like himself.
Clinton looks back on the 1990's as FEMA's Age of Pericles. ''I think we did a good job of disaster management,'' he said on ABC's ''This Week.'' While criticizing the Bush administration for leaving poor people stranded in New Orleans, he said that he and his FEMA director, James Lee Witt, had been especially sensitive to the needs of poor people because of their own backgrounds.
But if they cared so much, why didn't New Orleans ever work out a feasible way to evacuate poor people? FEMA had a golden opportunity to plan it during the 1990's. The threat of nuclear war had receded and terrorism wasn't yet a priority, so the agency's biggest concerns should have been an earthquake in California and a flood in New Orleans.
But it was too busy dealing with the record number of other ''disasters'' that Clinton declared -- an average of one a week, which meant FEMA was mailing out checks for every flash flood within range of a major media market. Upstate New Yorkers suddenly became incapable of coping with the cost of snow removal.
In 1997, Congress gave FEMA $500,000 and ordered it to develop a comprehensive plan to evacuate New Orleans. The agency passed on the money to Louisiana, which used it instead to study building a new bridge. As Rita Beamish of The Associated Press reported on Sunday, FEMA didn't bother making sure a plan was drawn up -- an aide to Witt said its job had just been to pass on the money.
How often do you suppose someone at Wal-Mart headquarters dispenses $500,000 and doesn't bother keeping track of it? The company can tell you the precise location of every thumbtack in its inventory. It's legendary for tracking every transaction and pinching every penny.
Its executives fly coach, and they empty their own wastebaskets. When Scott, the chief executive officer, travels with the chief financial officer, they cut costs by sharing a hotel room.
That's the kind of leader we need to oversee the tens or hundreds of billions that Washington will be spending on the Gulf Coast. Scott could insist on low everyday prices while still leaving the area as well prepared for the next disaster as Wal-Mart was for Katrina.
David Vitter, the Republican senator from Louisiana, was so impressed with the rapid response of Wal-Mart and other companies that he promised to introduce a bill to abolish FEMA and contract its job out to the private sector. I'm afraid the Wal-Mart Emergency Management Agency will be a tough sell on Capitol Hill. But I'd vote for WEMA.