by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was created by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 in response to the federal government’s disorganized efforts to deal with the Mount St. Helens eruption [sic: Mt. St. Helens 5/18/80]. A subsequent FEMA report on the likelihood of future natural disasters focused almost entirely on one very predictable event: a major earthquake in Northern California.

On October 17th, 1989, a major earthquake in Northern California tested FEMA and it failed miserably; as it had failed shortly before in responding to the tragedy of Hurri­cane Hugo in South Carolina. Angered over the agency’s failure, U.S. Senator Ernest Hollings (D-SC) called FEMA administrators “a bunch of bureaucratic jackasses.” The obvious question was: What had FEMA been planning for during the past decade?” An investigation by The San Francisco Bay Guardian, which included interviews with FEMA-watchers in Washington, background interviews with FEMA personnel who asked not to be identified to protect their jobs, and research into internal FEMA docu­ments, revealed that FEMA had become a center of the nation’s right wing preparations for resisting civil insurrection and surviving nuclear war.

Instead of preparing for a coordinated effort by federal, state, and local government agencies to respond to natural disasters, FEMA concentrated on developing plans to incar­cerate demonstrators, to take over the government during times of social unrest, and build secret bunkers from which military leaders could run the country after a nuclear attack. It appears that during the Reagan administration, the agency became a dumping ground for right-wing ideologues and survivalists who were obsessed with the futile task of planning for nuclear war.

Under the leadership of Director Louis Giuffrida, a former California National Guard general and close friend of former Attorney General Edwin Meese, the agency expanded into counterinsurgency, anti-terrorism, and domestic intelligence-gathering. Working with its National Security Council liaison, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, the agency drew up plans to essentially take over the government during a major national crisis, such as a nuclear attack or political insurrection.

While Giuffrida, North, and others are no longer involved with FEMA, critics charge that some of the “true believers” are still there planning on ways to survive a nuclear attack at the expense of preparing for natural disasters. FEMA documents openly tout the Inte­grated Emergency Management System approach to disaster planning which assumes that all disasters are sufficiently similar, so that FEMA can prepare for hurricanes and earth­quakes simply by preparing for nuclear war.

Many of FEMA’s critics, however, argue that the agency’s various tasks are contra­dictory. “You’ve got an agency that the public assumes is there for disaster relief — earth­quakes, floods and such — but the bulk of its money is spent on a military spook mission,” said Donald Goldberg, an investigator for the Senate Judiciary Committee.


SOURCE: THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN 520 Hampshire Street, San Francisco, CA 94110, DATE: 12/13/89



COMMENTS: Investigative journalist Craig McLaughlin suggests that one reason this story wasn’t covered earlier was because the media tend to wait for a crisis before investigating a story. “And once a story breaks into the news,” he added, “it is rarely pursued. Washington based journalists should have examined whether FEMA had really changed (after Louis Giufridda left under pressure), but they didn’t. The story was complicated and hard to explain. I think it had more to do with lazy journalists than with any conspiracy by some power elite. But unless a scandal comes up, the federal government generally sets the news agenda out of Washington.”