- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 14, 2009




As we await this week’s hearings on the confirmation of Governor Janet Napolitano as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, one of the most widely discussed issues seems to be the fate of FEMA within the Department of Homeland Security. But the problem is the current debate is anything but current. Those calling for a stand-alone FEMA often cite the agency’s failures during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, an emotional response three years out of date that fails to acknowledge recent progress by the agency. To fairly judge if FEMA should stay in DHS, we must look at the events of 2008 and not 2005. This year has been the busiest the agency has seen in 12 years, with 74 declared disasters, ranging from hurricanes, wildfires, and tornadoes to once-in-a-century flooding in the Midwest. Overall, the assessment of FEMA’s current performance is overwhelmingly positive. When asked how the reaction of FEMA had been in the immediate aftermath of the Greensburg, Kansas tornado, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius remarked — “I’d say they get an A. Clearly, there’s lessons learned from former catastrophes.”

Back in 2006, Congress turned some of those lessons learned into legislation. The bill that eventually became law required that the head of FEMA be an emergency management professional, with at least five years executive experience. The legislation also made sure that during a disaster, the lines of communication between the President and FEMA are open. Not only is the FEMA Administrator the principal advisor to the President during an emergency, the law allows the President to designate the head of FEMA as a member of his cabinet. The FEMA reform bill went a long way, but was only the beginning of FEMA’s new start. First, we must remember why the Department of Homeland Security was created: to protect Americans from all threats, both terrorist attacks and natural disasters. FEMA plays an important role in this mission, as do the other 22 agencies within the Department. Having all these different components operate as one was designed to break down the pre-9/11 turf wars that put our nation at risk. By having FEMA prepare for all threats, both it and DHS as a whole are stronger.

Take for example FEMA’s National Response Framework, a living document that describes how Federal, state, and local agencies, the private sector, and non-profits should work together in the event of an emergency. The document is all-hazards, focusing on both terrorist attacks and natural disasters, since the response to either should remain consistent. Similarly, homeland security grants administered by FEMA often help states and localities pay for emergency communications equipment and urban search and rescue teams - both of which would be used in the event of a hurricane or terrorist attack.

So what happens if FEMA is removed from DHS? Because of all this integration, DHS would probably create its own mini-FEMA to plan for catastrophic events. The roles of DHS and a separate FEMA would only be confused and efforts duplicated. Simply put, trying to separate prevention and protection from response and recovery at DHS would make us all less secure. It’s the equivalent of separating your offensive line from your quarterback and still expecting your team to win the Super Bowl. As an independent agency, FEMA would be considerably weakened without DHS resources at its immediate disposal.

This year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection provided aerial support to assess the damage after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The U.S. Coast Guard assisted in search and rescue operations and deployed ships, aircraft, medical teams, response teams, and other personnel to the Gulf area as well. While all this happened quickly because the requests were all within DHS, typically department-to-department requests take much longer. Thanks to bureaucratic red tape, during Katrina it took three whole days for other agencies to be able respond to requests for helicopter support.

While FEMA has come a long way since 2005, it can always be better. Congress must continue its vigorous oversight, pushing FEMA to build more equal partnerships with states and localities, improve the tracking and distribution of supplies, and further eliminate bureaucratic red tape. A FEMA within DHS can begin work on these issues immediately, but take FEMA out of the Department and all bets are off. Within DHS, FEMA is stronger and better able to respond to the next threat - to ignore that is to put the victims of the next disaster at greater risk.

Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican, Rep. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican, Rep. Dan Lungren, California Republican, Rep. Mike Rogers, Alabama Republican, Rep. Dave Reichert, Washington Republican, Rep. Michael McCaul, Texas Republican, and Rep. Charlie Dent, Pennsylvania Republican, are ranking members on the Committee on Homeland Security of the 110th Congress.

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