My two bits on FEMA
Off topic, but I was a federal bureaucrat of sorts for nearly ten years. See extended entry for details.
The nature of the bureacracy is such that you have to ask whether you want ANY federal agency handling an emergency (of course, the state agencies may be just as bad, but that's a terrifying thought). I spent nearly ten years at Interior Department HQ in Washington, as an attorney. Here's my take:
1. The nominal heads are usually political appointees, as often as not with no experience or inclination of any relevance. (Present Interior Sec. Norton is an exception: she was my boss's boss for several years). The appointments are made in exchange for campaign services, not for any skill. (Every turn of administrations there is a book published by GPO, called the Plumb Book, which lists all patronage jobs. It is as thick as a telephone book).
2. That doesn't matter, since mid-level management works to ensure they have no real info anyway. At one point during my time, the bean-counters decided to create a "litigation report" book that would list each case Interior had. At the end of each entry would be "For further information contact:" In governmentalese that meant the named person was handling the case, it did not really mean for further info contact him/her.
Secretary of Interior Lujan thought it did, so when he saw an interesting case he called the attorney. Mid-level went berserk. Lujan was getting the straight story, not "our position." All manner of horrors could break free! We got written orders that we were to refuse calls from the Secretary and tell him to go thru the chain of command. (The Solicitor, head of the legal shop, had been personal attorney to Geo. Bush Sr. and thus had no fear Lujan would fire him).
I read a report of one Cabinet official who one day went wandering out of their office, walking thru the building and talking to people. Just popped into offices and asked what was going on. WIthin a few hours, she reported, the HQ staff started looking for her and, upon finding she was wandering around, frantically searched the building until they tracked her down and stopped that nonsense.
3. Efficiency. That book of litigation I mentioned.... No one knew how many legal cases Interior had. The bean-counters who invented the litigation report thought a few hundred, that it'd be one loose-leaf binder. They told the field offices to send theirs in via modem (this was in the days when 300 baud modems were state of the art). Actually, we had over 6000 cases pending, and the input from the field tied up the modems for 48 hours.
So did they stop it? No, field offices were told to put them on floppies and overnight mail them in. Then we in HQ would edit every one (since spelling had to be 100%). But if there was a typo on it, the field office wouldn't know, and would send it in again next month.
Then they instituted correspondence control. Every letter and piece of paper coming in was assigned a control number. But nobody had desktops in those days, so each had sheets of paper that had to be assigned a ten digit subject number and other data, and then sent back. Mid-level management realized that any real control system would show that all the paperwork was sitting in their in-boxes (each ass't solicitor had 6-10 people under him, who could clear paper faster than he could, so he/she was the bottleneck). So they arranged it so the system only showed to whom the paper was first assigned. So everytime a deadline was overrun, the beancounters sent nastygrams to the grunt first assigned it, who had to hunt up his boss (who was usually at a meeting) and get the boss to ask for an extension. Understand, a govt office runs on paper, so the average grunt had six or eight of these happen per week.
4. Did I say a govt office runs on paper? Each document had to be prepared with seven copies. And each had to be perfect. The tiniest typo counted against you, and if your perfect output fell below 90% you got zapped in your annual evaluation. Oh, and the typists were almost illiterate, so the first draft usually had several errors per page. And the second had some, too. But any errors were blamed on the attorney. I know of one who read down each page with a ruler, so as to focus on each line individually. I once got an emergency appeal request rejected because I had only one space between the period ending one sentence and the first letter of the next, and the Government Style Manual called for two space.
5. And there was the time the building (2 blocks long, one wide, and six stories high) spent millions on a new fire alarm system. Unfortunately, they forgot to test it. So when the first office fire happened (an electrical receptacle), the guy threw the alarm and nothing happened. Then he got a fire extinguisher and ... nothing happened. Just as well--the only extinguishers were water ones. We got a memo telling us the alarm system didn't work. Next we heard of it was five months later, during national fire prevention week, when we got a memo asking us to be aware of fire prevention, and noting that they hoped to have the system fixed soon.
Oh--if we had to get paperwork to Justice Dept in a hurry (this was in the days before fax machines -- there were messengers to carry it across town, but you had to get high level approval to use one), we were told to send it to their homes. Why? Justice Dept mail systems were such that it took 2-3 days for the papers to make it from the mail room to their offices. If you sent it to their homes, they'd at least get it the next day and could bring it in to work.
6. As attorneys, we had a trivial risk of being fired for screwing up. The folks who had full civil service protection had virtually none. I heard of a case where a manager imposed some modest discipline (a reprimand, I think) and the employee challenged). In the civil service hearing the discipline was upheld ... because the employee in the hearing went berserk and cussed him out in front of the admin law judge, screaming that he was a m____ f____er among other things. OK, that will probably draw you a reprimand.... The Park Service attorneys had a case where the guy was fired because... he was convicted of manslaughter, sentence to a year in the slammer, and thus wasn't showing up for work. It took six months to fire him, because the civil service commission kept on giving extensions because he didn't show up ... because he was in jail.
7. Oh, and no risk of being sued, either, if you foul up. Even assuming someone had a case (and in general you owe no legal duty to the public), under the Federal Tort Claims Act they have to sue the US Govt, not you, and they lose unless they can show you broke a specific law or clearly broke an order (it's called the Discretionary Function Exception, and essentially if the govt employee had any discretion -- his action wasn't in violation of statue, regulation, or order, it was just stupid or negligent -- the govt wins).
8. All authority was several levels up from the guy who knew what was going on. If you're handling a case or anything else, the person who can sign a document about it (even as simple as a letter) is your boss, his boss, or sometimes *his* boss. All that adds time (each person has an in-box), chance of rejection (one of their flunkies may spot a typo), and ensures that the person signing the order or document knows precious little about it.
Bottom line: if your posterior is on the line during an emergency, do you want the entity responding to be a group where the tops dogs were chosen for campaign assistance rather than skill, the middle level management keeps them ignorant anyway, an emergency request can be tied up because it had a typo in it, the person who knows about the situation has no power over it, and nobody can be fired for screwups and nobody can be sued for them?