- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 28, 2005

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Weaknesses in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response system during Hurricane Katrina were just one symptom of major management challenges at the Department of Homeland Security, an internal report issued yesterday concludes.

The report by the department’s inspector general also questions Homeland Security’s ability to properly oversee billions of dollars worth of contracts it awards annually.

The findings were issued as the nearly three-year-old department struggles to revamp its programs and resources to prioritize top risks.

FEMA, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), was singled out as a top concern by investigators. They pointed to the agency’s “overburdened resources and infrastructure” in dealing with the double whammy of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Investigators found that several key FEMA programs — distributing aid to disaster victims, emergency response information systems, modernizing flood maps, and managing contracts and grants — remain inadequate.

“Based on our work related to prior emergency response efforts, we have raised concerns regarding weaknesses” within those programs, said the audit by Homeland Security Inspector General Richard L. Skinner.

Moreover, “when one considers that FEMA’s programs are largely administered through grants and contracts, the circumstances created by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita provide an unprecedented opportunity for fraud, waste and abuse,” the report noted.

“While DHS is taking several steps to manage and control spending under Katrina, the sheer size of the response and recovery efforts will create an unprecedented need for oversight,” it said.

Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, and Rita hit Sept. 24.

Department officials responded to the audit with an 11-page point-by-point analysis, acknowledging and explaining shortcomings in some areas and defending actions in others.

“The department is evacuating FEMA’s disaster registration processes and databases to make sure we have a high degree of confidence in those systems,” the response said. “We want to have the flexibility to use this information to provide a level of granular detail that enables us to make informed decisions about where to focus our attention and resources, and how to better assist our state and local partners.”

Other areas of concern, as reviewed in the report, include:

• Financial reporting problems, especially at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which failed to properly maintain its accounting records.

• Delays in creating and installing a personnel system that replaced salaries based on workers’ seniority with a merit pay system. The delays were caused, in part, by a federal lawsuit challenging the proposed regulations.

• Poor coordination between border patrol officers and immigration investigators, contributing to security vulnerabilities at the nation’s borders.

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