Monday, December 19, 2005

The Homeland Security Department is consolidating its terrorist and natural disaster preparation efforts into one new agency to include duties once performed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

George W. Foresman, was confirmed Saturday by the Senate as undersecretary for preparedness at the Department of Homeland Security. He will be responsible for all training and disaster planning.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday praised the confirmation of Mr. Foresman.

“There is an urgent need to enhance preparedness for catastrophic events in this country, whether natural or man-made,” Mr. Chertoff said. “We are operating with a common-sense approach … on events that pose the greatest potential consequences.”

Also placed under the preparedness director’s charge are the U.S. Fire Administration, a chief medical officer, an assistant secretary for cyber and telecommunications security and the authority to issue grants to first responders.

Mr. Foresman will head the new Preparedness Directorate, which got $4 billion from Congress for its first year of operations. He has 20 years of emergency-preparations experience at various levels of government, most recently as Virginia’s assistant to the governor for commonwealth preparedness.

The importance of disaster preparation became glaring in the recent hurricane season.

The Senate has yet to act on the confirmation of FEMA acting Director David Paulison, whose budget for the next fiscal year was cut by nearly 12 percent to $2.6 billion. Mr. Paulison is set to replace Michael Brown who was dismissed after the agency’s feeble response to Hurricane Katrina.

Officials with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee could not be reached for comment.

However, after an oversight hearing earlier this month, Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and ranking committee member, criticized FEMA. He said the agency “miscalculated the gravity of the storm [Katrina] coming and failed to realize that doing business as usual would compound the disaster.

“Under these kinds of catastrophic conditions, FEMA should not have seen its role as a butler waiting in the wings to assist when called. Rather, it needed to be a battler, anticipating the problems and making the bureaucracy move quickly for the safety and security of the people of the Gulf Coast,” Mr. Lieberman said.

Congress set certain mandates for the Homeland Security Department in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, including a requirement that guidelines be developed for mass evacuation plans.

The hasty evacuation of 2.5 million Houston residents before Rita left thousands of residents stranded in traffic jams. Some evacuees were forced to abandon their vehicles, which had run out of gas. The gridlock resulting from the New Orleans evacuation from Katrina forced some residents to take shelter inside the Superdome.

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