- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

Moving an intensive-care patient outdoors won’t cure him, but that’s how some members of Congress would treat a patient in desperate need of care and rehabilitation — the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

We shared Americans’ shock at news accounts of FEMA’s delayed, halting and often wasteful response to Hurricane Katrina last summer. After a seven-month investigation that featured 22 hearings and 325 formal interviews and collected more than 838,000 pages of documents, the Senate Homeland Security Committee concluded that “FEMA was unprepared — and has never been prepared — for a catastrophe of the scale of Katrina.” The committee found that FEMA has been under-staffed, under funded, unready and weakened by loss of essential functions like grant-making authority to support state and local disaster training.

Among the 88 recommendations in our new committee report, “Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared,” is that FEMA be strengthened, protected and given a more regional focus to promote faster and better-tailored responses to natural disasters or terror attacks — and be reconstituted as the National Preparedness and Response Authority as a mark of serious change.

Some Washington insiders have reacted poorly to this proposal (e.g., the op-ed “Getting FEMA wrong,” in the Washington Times on May 8). They want to pull FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security to reclaim what they see as the glory days of an earlier time.

Their prescription has several reality-based problems.

First, FEMA is not now and probably never was capable of responding effectively to a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina — even when it was an independent agency. Its response to the 1992 destruction in Florida from Hurricane Andrew was widely criticized. A Government Accountability Office report said the “the federal strategy for responding to catastrophic disasters is deficient” and that the performance “raised serious doubts about whether FEMA is capable of responding to catastrophic disasters.” And FEMA’s own inspector general recently reported that, except for evacuation planning, there was no evidence of “FEMA efforts to conduct planning specifically for catastrophic natural disasters, and little awareness of the need for preparing for them, prior to 2001.”

Second, moving FEMA out of DHS won’t cure its problems, but will sever its close working ties with other DHS units like the Coast Guard, infrastructure protection, law enforcement, and communications and intelligence capabilities. We would note that the Coast Guard — by all accounts a stellar performer in responding to Katrina — was, like FEMA, transferred to DHS, and has continued to excel.

Third — and ironic, considering that critics like Reps. Tom Davis and Bill Shuster fault us for supposedly “creating another bureaucracy” — moving FEMA out of DHS would force the department to create another bureaucracy to maintain its capability to deal with the disastrous aftermath of a mass-casualty terror attack. Since DHS’ mission applies to both natural and man-made disasters, and since challenges like arranging evacuation, food, medical care and shelter are similar regardless of cause, keeping a strengthened agency within DHS makes operational and financial sense.

Fourth, the critics’ position overlooks the committee’s recommendation that the emergency preparedness and response system be transformed from a Washington-centered bureaucracy into a 10-region organization focused on training, planning and responding in close cooperation with state and local officials. While we propose a decentralized model that focuses on regional challenges, others cling to a more bureaucratic model.

Fifth, our plan would protect a reinforced, reinvented FEMA to ensure its visibility and influence. It includes statutory protection against departmental reorganization, a regular advisory link to the president, and direct reporting to the president in times of crisis.

Members of Congress engaged in a long and thoughtful debate before deciding that FEMA belonged in the DHS structure. That logic is still sound. Emergency management is a central part of our homeland security. FEMA’s withdrawal from DHS can only weaken the agency further and transfer its problems elsewhere. It is the wrong way to go if we are serious about protecting American lives.

Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, is chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, is ranking member.


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