Welles: Feds try to stay nimble

Like it or not, a slow emergency response is what most people will remember

No one will claim credit, but countless heroes among frontline federal employees in New Orleans stayed to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. In most cases, their families were as severely affected as the people they served.

Federal employees in other states also volunteered to help or were sent to the Gulf Coast to offer assistance. But overall, a late, insufficient response to Hurricane Katrina gave the government a black eye.

Was it lousy leadership, bungled bureaucracy or something more complex? Communications systems were down. Many Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster specialists had recently retired. Federal, state and local coordination efforts were confused. Congressional hearings, government oversight agencies and media pundits will be examining what happened for a long time.

"We undoubtedly need to figure out why evacuation plans and emergency communications systems were woefully deficient," said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, at a Sept. 15 hearing. But Davis cautioned against jumping to conclusions. "We don't need to prematurely paint the picture that these are solely, or even primarily, federal government responsibilities."

Clearly, government at all levels did not respond as quickly or completely as needed. But in the aftermath, the federal government proved that, if anything, it can be flexible. In the days immediately after the hurricane, agencies showed that flexibility by finding many workable alternatives to standard federal policies and procedures.

The Office of Personnel Management provides extensive information on its Web site about work flexibilities that employees and agencies can use — and many of them did. For example, agencies can bring retirees back to work during emergencies, and OPM officials can expedite requests to waive salary offsets for annuities. Agencies can also rehire those who left the federal government through buyouts and request a waiver of any repayment.

The Food Stamp Program instituted a one-month policy of certifying Gulf State evacuees without requiring proof of income or resource eligibility.

The Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement will not penalize employers for hiring Hurricane Katrina victims who lack the documentation normally required under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

In another policy variation, state authorities permitted some of the nearly 5,000 rescued pets in overfilled shelters to be moved out of state, even though current rules require animals to remain in the state from which they come.

And to illustrate how differently things were done after Katrina, 115 countries responded to the emergency with offers to help the United States.

My way of changing standard operating procedures was buying more bottles of water and dog food for the emergency backpack I keep in my car.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has worked in the public and private sectors. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@fcw.com.

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