- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2006

A Senate committee recommendation to replace the Federal Emergency Management Agency with an even larger bureaucracy inside the Department of Homeland Security would compound, not solve, the problems laid bare by Hurricane Katrina. Creating the proposed National Preparedness and Response Authority (NPRA) only rearranges the deck chairs on the good ship DHS, while failing to address the most basic structural flaws that all agree hobbled the nation’s response to the storm.

Instead, we should go back to basics, back to the configuration and mission that enabled FEMA to succeed. Founded on the principal that all federal capabilitiestoanticipate, prepare for and respond to major civil emergencies should be supervised by one official responsible directly to the President, FEMA worked well when properly staffed, capably led and adequately resourced. Fidelity to that principle should be our priority going forward, not new acronyms.

The problem at FEMA is inertia,notinitials. Crammed into a diverse, sprawling and still conflicted mission portfolio at DHS, the nation’s emergency response tools fell out of favor as other priorities drew funding and leadership focus. Hoped-for synergies and efficiencies between DHS and FEMA proved one-sided, as the agency was steadily bled to death by its many new siblings in a parent organization focused on terrorism.

Increasingly separatedfromthe preparedness grants and exercises provided to its state and local partners, FEMA was not able to follow the DOD maxim to “train as we fight.” In order to work, the four components of comprehensive emergency management — preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation — must be closely integrated and under unitary command. Specialized skills and unique experience must be quickly brought to bear in a crisis. Displaced storm victims cannot wait for ponderous intra-agency or interagency committees to decide how much food and water to send. The FEMA director needs direct access to the president so other departments have no doubt who is driving the federal response.

As many emergency management professionals warned, it was a mistake to put FEMA into DHS. National “all hazard” preparation and response capabilities constitute a discreet and perishable asset that has to stand alone to thrive. Like a home fire extinguisher, it’s something too easy to forget about? until you need it. Then, when the alarm sounds, you don’t want to have to rummage through the back of the linen closet only to find the device is empty from misuse or neglect.

In a clumsy attempt to straddle the fundamental structural issue, the Senate committee would leave emergency response functions embedded with DHS, but allow the disastrously named NPRA to somehow detach and become more independent during an emergency. Expecting the agency to grow up and move out once the crisis begins adds uncertainty and complexity to an already difficult and intense moment. Not Solomonic, but merely indecisive, cutting this baby in half will not make it work any better. It needs to be on its own from the start.

The right structure may not guarantee success, but the wrong one all but assures failure. Just as we need an organization solely focuses on preventing a terrorist attack on our homeland, we also need an organization solely focused on disaster preparedness and response. Mixing the two creates needless friction between two essential functions and inevitably denigrates both. FEMA should revert back to a stand-alone agency, with the dedicated resources, unquestioned clout and entrepreneurial agility to get the job done.

Rep. Tom Davis is a Virginia Republican and Rep. Bill Shuster is a Pennsylvania Republican.

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