- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Obama administration should not strip the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from the fledgling Department of Homeland Security Department (DHS) and reorganize it as a separate entity, according to a government report released Wednesday.

Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner said in the report titled “FEMA: In or Out?” that the new administration should refrain from making any rush decisions, despite rumblings from Capitol Hill to do so.

“Maintaining the status quo in the first year avoids unnecessary instability and confusion at a time of elevated risk,” Mr. Skinner wrote.

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Ultimately, Mr. Skinner said, separating FEMA would drain resources that the department has come to depend on during natural disasters, and will be an essential component in another terrorist strike.

“Removing FEMA from DHS at this point would cause considerable upheaval, to both FEMA and the department,” Mr. Skinner said.

“While FEMA has not again faced a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, it has generally been perceived as performing relatively well in responding to disasters in the past few years,” he said.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will take the recommendation under advisement, said Amy Kudwa, department spokeswoman.

“She has been asked this before, and her answer has been that she has an opinion but she will share her opinion with the president before discussing it publicly,” Miss Kudwa said.

Rep. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, reopened the debate in December when he recommended to Mr. Obama that FEMA “be reinstated as an independent, Cabinet-level agency reporting directly to the president.”

Supporters of this approach, including the International Association of Emergency Managers, say the FEMA director should report directly to the president and be included as a member of the Cabinet to improve communication and response to emergencies.

After Katrina destroyed the levees in New Orleans in 2005, Director Michael D. Brown said actions were stalled because he no longer had a direct line to the president. Congress has since remedied that with legislation, giving the director direct access to the president in times of emergencies.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, countered Mr. Oberstar’s plea and in a memo to Mr. Obama said that removing FEMA from the department would disrupt distribution of grants and “hamstring” preparedness.

“It would also likely undermine our ability to mount an effective response to disaster,” he said.

FEMA was folded into DHS when the department was created as a response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The agency’s failures after Katrina ignited debate on Capitol Hill as to whether it should again be a stand-alone agency.

However, Mr. Skinner concluded that leadership, not organization, is key to the agency’s future success and cited the findings of the Commission on National Security/21st Century Road Map for National Security:

“Even excellent organizational structure cannot make impetuous or mistaken leaders patient or wise, but poor organizational design can make good leaders less effective.”

Key members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee say they agree with Mr. Skinner’s findings.

“Moving it out now would weaken FEMA, since the agency would no longer have the same ready access to the resources and expertise of the rest of DHS, and it would be more difficult to coordinate in a disaster,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, committee chairman and Connecticut independent.

The committee released letters of support for keeping FEMA intact from groups representing 1.7 million first responders.

“Above all, those who put their lives on the line, who are on the front lines of emergency response, say it would be a colossal mistake to sever FEMA’s connection to DHS by taking it out of the department,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, ranking Republican on the committee.

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