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.