FEMA Braces for Another Storm

FEMA Braces for Another Storm

With hurricane season approaching and another Bush crony at the helm of FEMA, a few restive lawmakers are seeking real reform for the storm-tossed agency. Whether they will succeed is another story.


When images of the Gulf Coast were broadcast around the country after Hurricane Katrina, it marked the beginning of a national discussion on the agency that governs emergency management, leaving many Americans with the notion that FEMA stands for Failed Emergency Management Agency.

The most recent criticisms were contained in a bipartisan Senate committee report, “Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared.” Led by Republican chair Susan Collins and ranking Democrat Joseph Lieberman, the committee called for the abolition of FEMA and the construction of a stronger emergency response authority.

“After the hurricane, the White House continued to demonstrate a lack of understanding of the magnitude of the catastrophe,” wrote Lieberman in the report’s conclusion.

Democrats who feel Lieberman has become too close with the White House on the Iraq War may be encouraged by his critique, but blame is a good distancing tool in an election year. The real news is that the Senate ignored the issue many experts are saying would truly make a difference: the separation of FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security.

James Lee Witt, FEMA director under President Clinton, has often cited his direct line to the White House as a reason for the agency’s internationally recognized success in the ’90s. At a recent panel discussion at the New School on disaster preparedness, Witt said, “As long as the Department of Homeland Security has twenty-two federal agencies and 180,000 federal employees, it’s going to be impossible to make it functional.”

Meanwhile, Bush appointee Michael Brown blamed his failure at FEMA’s helm on funding issues. “I headed the transition team that put FEMA in the Department of Homeland Security,” he said. “What we put together was fundamentally a FEMA on steroids within DHS, but that’s not what happened…. It’s not going to change until FEMA is put outside the department, so FEMA can make its own case for what its budget should be.”

Lieberman, however, opposes the re-establishment of a Cabinet-level agency, arguing that “the response to a terrorist attack is not much different than a response to a natural disaster.”

The White House welcomes that kind of support. As Janet Hook of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Separating FEMA from Homeland Security would remove a major function from the department whose creation had been the cornerstone of President Bush’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.”

Some members of Congress have picked up on what the experts are saying. Hillary Clinton was the first, introducing legislation eight days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans that would re-establish FEMA as an independent agency. In just over six months, Congress has seen the introduction of six more bills, all proposing the same action, with five emerging from the House. The problem, however, is that this emerging call to action has become a turf war, with bipartisan factions in the House and Senate gearing up for a major Congressional battle–just as hurricane season begins.

Representative Mark Foley of Florida is the lone House Republican to introduce a FEMA reform bill, but his reasons aren’t quite the same as his Democratic colleagues. According to spokesman Jason Kello, Foley created the FEMA reform bill because he believes “FEMA took attention away from DHS and protecting Americans from terrorists…. [Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff] should be focused on every port, every terrorist cell in the US, as opposed to what went wrong with FEMA.”

Although Foley’s district was hit by three hurricanes in 2004, Kello said disaster preparedness should be left to state and local officials, who already have it down to a science.

“The concept of FEMA is like a bunch of guys driving around the country in a van to cover an emergency,” Kello said. “They should be a clearinghouse for emergency preparedness, approving plans for cities, and offering guidance with federal resources…. FEMA is not there to pull tens and thousands out of the river.”

While Foley’s legislation, if passed, would be a major blow to the Administration’s “war on terror,” he still stands in support of the President. And as Kello pointed out, Foley’s bill is different than the ones being proposed in the Senate.

“They make requirements on the qualifications of the FEMA director,” Kello said. “We think the President has every right to name who he wants to those positions and don’t try to stick our nose in how the President appoints [his Cabinet].”

Clinton’s bill, which was reintroduced in February by Trent Lott, makes the provision that the FEMA director be appointed by the President “with advice and consent from the Senate” and have “significant experience, knowledge, training, and expertise in the area of emergency preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation as related to natural disasters and other national cataclysmic events.”

The Senate is seeking more influence over the President’s appointee for good reason. Time reported in September that Brown had padded his résumé with false emergency management experience, indicating his appointment in 2003 had more to do with cronyism than credentials. Meanwhile, acting FEMA director R. David Paulison was the eighth man in line for the full-time job when Bush announced his nomination earlier this month.

“We must insure that the right people are leading DHS,” said Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, a cosignatory on both Senate bills. “Hurricane Katrina and the resignation of Undersecretary Michael Brown have raised concerns regarding the experience and qualifications of political appointees in the federal government.”

Akaka was critical of the unification of FEMA under DHS long before Hurricane Katrina, but unlike Foley, who believes FEMA distracts from homeland security, Akaka believes it to be the other way around.

“Senator Akaka feels that FEMA is getting lost in Homeland Security and that it is being treated like an orphan brother,” said spokesman Jon Yoshimura. “He sees a Cabinet-level agency with a direct line to the President as the solution.”

With the Senate Homeland Security Committee already issuing its recommendation, it seems unlikely that Lott’s bill will stand much of a chance, but a glimmer of hope remains in the House for those seeking a return to the FEMA agency of old. The bipartisan House committee that investigated Katrina preparedness and response is led by chair Tom Davis, who has called for the removal of FEMA from Homeland Security, saying, “You’ve got to have the White House directly involved in this so that they can draw from any agency.”

Representative Bill Shuster, a Republican from Pennsylvania, helped investigate the Katrina response for the bipartisan House committee and has begun drafting legislation that would remove FEMA from Homeland Security–the plan is already drawing support from Davis.

The Shuster bill would certainly be helped by the Congressman’s position as chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Economic Development Subcommittee, a panel that oversees FEMA. But it will meet a few roadblocks, namely Peter King, a New York Republican, and Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, the leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee.

“Removing FEMA from DHS would only exacerbate the agency’s problems,” they said in a joint statement. “It would reduce FEMA’s access to the vast resources available within the department, create duplicative response efforts for natural and manmade disasters and significantly delay our ability to prepare for future emergencies.”

The only problem with that explanation is the lack of evidence supporting it. FEMA has quite clearly deteriorated under DHS control, leaving many disaster-prone states to long for the days of a Cabinet-level agency.

“Senator Lott worked closely with James Witt and a number of other impressive FEMA directors, when it was an independent agency,” said Lott’s communications director, Susan Irby. “We know it can do its job.”

The question that remains is whether it will be allowed to do so. The only reform action set to take effect is from a White House report, “Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned.” Of its 125 recommendations, eleven were deemed “critical” and must be administered before the start of June. But considering that this administration never admits its mistakes, let alone “lessons learned,” Gulf states can expect nothing in the form of a serious overhaul. The recommendations are made up of mostly feel-good talking points, like insuring “relevant Federal, State, and local decision-makers…are working together,” employing “all available technology” and enhancing “the mechanism for providing Federal funds.”

It’s now up to Congress to come to a consensus and return FEMA to the functioning agency it was before 9/11.

“Congress was the one that passed the legislation to make FEMA part of Homeland Security,” Irby said. “Senator Lott’s feeling is that we need to acknowledge it as a mistake.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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