- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2006

Lawmakers are reacting to Homeland Security’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina by threatening to revamp the fledgling department just 100 days before the new storm season begins.

Some want to abolish the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and others want to elevate it to Cabinet status to answer directly to the president.

However, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says any tinkering this close to the storm season — predicted by weather forecasters to be as severe as last year’s — would be a “big mistake.”

“I want to say this in the strongest possible terms. We’re coming up on hurricane season. Nature doesn’t wait for us to do yet another reorganization,” Mr. Chertoff said.

“If FEMA is pulled out of the Department of Homeland Security, I will predict with virtual certainty that we will be much less prepared this hurricane season than we will be if we keep the department together and finish the job of integrating it,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

FEMA had massive help from other Homeland Security agencies, including the Coast Guard, which conducted more than 30,000 rescues in the aftermath of Katrina.

“We would lose all of that extra help if we separated FEMA out,” Mr. Chertoff said.

“I think the last thing we want to do is to have a situation where we have two parallel agencies fighting over who manages a particular type of a disaster,” Mr. Chertoff said.

Sen. Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, and Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, said on yesterday’s political talk shows that the agency should be separated from the Homeland Security Department.

Mr. Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, says the agency needs to stand alone rather than have “a bureaucratic layer reporting up through the secretary,” which in the case of Katrina, “just didn’t work out at all.”

“We are talking about not prevention here but response. It’s a different skill set, and you need all the authority of the government. And I think being at the right arm of the president is the best way to do that,” Mr. Davis said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and an architect of Homeland Security’s Cabinet status, said yesterday that FEMA should be abolished and its responsibilities absorbed by other Homeland Security agencies.

“FEMA has become, to too many people in America and particularly in the Gulf Coast, a joke, a four-letter word,” said Mr. Lieberman, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Separating the agency “would waste a lot of money and make us less effective,” and it is the Homeland Security secretary who is the lead official to prepare and respond to disasters, Mr. Lieberman said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Mr. Chertoff, who spent his first anniversary as Homeland Security chief defending his agency’s hurricane disaster response in front of several congressional panels last week, hit the Sunday political talk show rounds yesterday.

Asked by several hosts whether he planned to resign, Mr. Chertoff declined to answer except to say that he serves at the pleasure of the president.

“I think the bottom line right now is to take the constructive criticism and use that to build toward the hurricane season that is 100 days away. And we don’t have a lot of time to waste before we start to address that next set of challenges,” Mr. Chertoff told CNN’s “Late Edition.”

Although former FEMA Director Michael D. Brown initially took the brunt of criticism for the slow response to Katrina, Mr. Chertoff’s performance is now being questioned.

“The Homeland Security Act, presidential directives pursuant to the act, the national response plan all make clear that the secretary of homeland security is the lead federal official when it comes to preparation for and response to disasters — [whether] terrorists or natural disasters,” Mr. Lieberman said.

Mr. Davis credited Mr. Chertoff for reorganizing the department and refocusing its efforts on prevention, but said that on the response side, “these problems are much more systematic than just being about one or two people.”


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