From Hurricane Frederic in 1979 to tropical storm fay, which ravaged Florida in late August, Americans affected by disaster have looked to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for aid. But long before its error-plagued response to Hurricane Katrina (which marked its third anniversary Aug. 29), critics complained that FEMA, meant to epitomize state humanitarianism, was a synonym for government dysfunction.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine.]ADMINISTRATION ANALYSIS Jimmy Carter 1977-1981 HIGH HOPES In 1979 Carter merges some 100 disconnected aid programs into a new agency in order to better coordinate U.S. disaster response. The organization proves unwieldy and ill-equipped to implement preventive measures or deter residents from rebuilding in disaster-prone areas like Dauphin Island, Ala., obliterated by Hurricane Frederic and subsequent storms. SUCCESS FAILURE Ronald Reagan 1981-1989 WIDENING REACH Reagan reinterprets FEMA's role to fit the Cold War, granting it power to cope with a nuclear attack and even, reportedly, implement martial law--prompting clashes over jurisdiction with the Justice Department. Meanwhile, underqualified political appointees fill the agency's bureaucracy; in 1985 FEMA Director Louis Giuffrida steps down amid allegations of fraud. SUCCESS FAILURE George H. W. Bush 1989-1993 UNPREPARED FEMA's lackluster response to 1989's Hurricane Hugo prompts Senator Fritz Hollings to denounce it as the "sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever known." Yet the agency is caught flat-footed again when Hurricane Andrew overwhelms southern Florida in 1992, leaving 160,000 people homeless and probably costing Bush the next election. SUCCESS FAILURE Bill Clinton 1993-2001 AID ABOUNDS New FEMA Director James Lee Witt makes the agency more proactive. Project Impact, designed to target and equip high-risk areas, doles out funds in flood-prone regions and earthquake zones. The agency earns kudos for its prompt response to Midwestern floods that cause $15 billion in damage in 1993, although detractors call FEMA bloated and too ready to give handouts. SUCCESS FAILURE George W. Bush 2001-2009 A NEW THREAT After 9/11, Bush brings FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security; the new focus on terrorism draws resources away from disaster response. Under Michael Brown, the agency woefully mishandles Katrina in 2005: resources offered by the Interior Department go unused, while search-and-rescue efforts are halted just three days after the storm. SUCCESS FAILURE