An "earnest and diligent effort" to supply FEMA records remains stalled after 40 months

A reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune describes his long-running effort to use the federal Freedom of Information Act to learn how FEMA’s “Rapid Needs Assessment Teams” sized up needs in Louisiana’s storm-ravaged communities. Bottom line: He’s still waiting. – DR

Point of View
Three years later, FEMA still giving out excuses, not documents
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Mark Schleifstein

Last week, I got my annual letter from FEMA letting me know someone deep within the federal bureaucracy is “making an earnest and diligent effort” to fulfill the request for public records I filed on Oct. 5, 2005.

Among other things, I had asked for reports created by so-called “Rapid Needs Assessment Teams” that outlined the type and amount of help needed in communities affected by the storms — food, water, housing, medical assistance. I sought to better understand the causes of FEMA’s historically botched delivery of disaster recovery aid.

You may or may not be familiar with the intracacies of the federal Freedom of Information Act, but trust me on this: The public’s right to access to government records lies at the core of what distinguishes freedom from tyranny. A government operating in secret is, by definition, doing citizens wrong.

Trust me on this, too: Almost all government bureaucrats — city, state and federal — hate public records laws and usually break them. Through some mysterious process, they come to believe they, rather than you, own the public records.

When I first filed my request with FEMA, I was still working in temporary newspaper offices in Baton Rouge. Given the emergency engulfing Louisiana, I exercised a provision in the federal records law to request expedited delivery of the records.

“The delayed disclosure of information necessary to improve future initial responses to hurricanes could threaten the life and physical safety of people living in the New Orleans area,” I wrote.

Forty months later, in a letter whose envelope was dated Jan. 12, 2009 — there’s no date on the letter itself — Alisa T. Henderson, chief of FEMA’s “Disclosure Office,” wrote, “We sincerely apologize for this delay and any inconvenience it may have caused.”

Henderson actually was following up on a Nov. 19 call from one of her employees who had asked whether I still wanted the information and stating the obvious, that Katrina and Rita hit more than three years ago. Follow the federal logic here: If we break the law for long enough, you should allow us to break it forever.

That call and Henderson’s letter are only the latest in what’s become an annual apology ritual for the office allegedly handling public information requests.I received my first response on Oct. 7, 2005, from Jeff Ovall, a FEMA attorney, who explained that my request for expedited processing had been granted (!) but that FEMA was a bit short-handed at the time, given the hurricanes.

A year later, Ovall wrote again, to ask whether I was still interested in the information, and included the surprising information that there were 226 cases “in our non-expedited queue, of which there are 27 in front of yours.”

In my response, I replied “YES” — I still wanted the records and was disturbed to find my request “non-expedited.””Nothing has changed,” I wrote in November 2006.

“As I sit in New Orleans almost 15 months after Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of my community, killing more than 1,500 people, the New Orleans area still is not protected by levees capable of withstanding a catastrophic hurricane.

“Thus, the lessons that may be learned from the initial response to Katrina by your agency may assist the public in determining whether it is safe enough for them to remain in or return to their homes in this area.”