- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 14, 2006

With Washington a ghost town for the holidays, the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security quietly released the results of a devastating investigation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), citing severe management and financial problems that documented its deeply flawed response to Hurricane Katrina.

The report by HHS Inspector General Richard Skinner found “an unprecedented opportunity for fraud, waste and abuse” in FEMA’s and DHS’ loose administration and oversight of FEMA grant and contract programs, which are the overwhelming proportion of their responsibilities. Earlier, of course, Michael Brown, head of FEMA was forced to resign in the face of the obvious failures of the federal response.

During the same slow news days, the Small Business Administration inspector general, Peter McClintock, issued a report on its Katrina loans for adversely affected businesses. He could not verify that 85 percent of firms were qualified for loan they received. Many companies told investigators they did not know the loans were for Katrina and claimed they were not told this was a condition.

Did any of this produce humbler federal attitudes? As Hurricane Wilma approached in October, the head of the newly established Northern Command, Adm. Timothy Keating, told Congress active duty forces should have complete authority for responding to catastrophic domestic disasters, apparently following a statement by President George W. Bush that such an approach should be investigated.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had other ideas. “I can say with certainty that federalizing emergency response to catastrophic events would be a disaster as bad as Hurricane Katrina. If you federalize, all the innovation, creativity and knowledge would subside.” As reports at the time demonstrated, the security controls set up by FEMA in the early post-Katrina hours severely interrupted both local and voluntary efforts to assist the victims, including efforts by his state of Florida.

A new federal procedure, the National Incident Management System, was created by President Bush following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to force federal, state and local officials to work together, presumably under a designated principal federal officer. As Wilma approached, DHS fought with local officials to allow Secretary Michael Chertoff to name one of his Coast Guard uniformed subordinates to lead response efforts. Florida National Guard chief Gen. Douglas Burnett later expressed his feelings, “Did we need a three-star general from Texas to come to direct our response? No we did not.”

At the critical Oct. 20 videoconference meeting, however, Florida state FEMA head, Craig Fugate, announced the NIMS committee but staffed it with a majority of Florida officials and declared its chairman to be Gov. Bush, outmaneuvering the feds who were not ready to fight the president’s brother.

Where was Congress as these critical issues of federal versus state power were discussed? It voted to spend $63 billion but left it pretty much up to those spending it. Even FEMA, which after all is primarily a grant-making agency with no particular expertise in street-level emergencies, pretty much redirected the funds to state, local and private contractors.

DHS’ management experts too are program officers without direct emergency responsibilities, which are overwhelmingly local, voluntary, state and National Guard staffed and operated. There was some discussion of freeing FEMA from DHS’ heavy-handed oversight but that soon died out in the flight to recess.

Congress’ only direct response was to haul the private Red Cross, extensively relied upon by federal officials in the light of their few direct resources, before the Senate Finance Committee. Rather than clean its own government’s act, Sen. Charles Grassley, chairman of the powerful committee, opened an investigation into Red Cross’ management structure.

Ever since the New Deal, the national government has been declaring some domestic problem exists and no one else can solve it. From dam maintenance, to health care, to education, to toilet-bowl intake levels, to garbage, the feds simply assumed responsibility. When things worsened, as they often did under centralized management, the response was always to demand additional federal powers. Katrina may be the turning point and perhaps Gov. Bush is the man to lead the charge.

Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist, a professor at Bellevue University and editor of www.ConservativeBattleline.com.

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