Mikulski hopes floods reform emergency aid Senator joins Clinton in Midwest today

July 17, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton makes his third visit to the Midwest today to inspect flood damage and the federal response, Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski will be at his side.

So, too, will the new head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is coordinating the government response to the floods and has born the brunt of blistering criticism from Senator Mikulski in the past year.

The Baltimore Democrat was not alone in criticizing FEMA for its slow response to Hurricane Andrew in Florida, Hurricane Iniki in Hawaii and the devastation from the riots in Los Angeles. But as the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that handles the FEMA budget, she has clout that most critics lack.

Earlier this year, the Baltimore Democrat introduced legislation to reduce from 34 to five the number of political appointees running the agency and to shift its emphasis from preparing for nuclear attack to responding to natural disasters.

"A lack of leadership and vision, coupled with an emphasis on nuclear attack, has rendered FEMA virtually incapacitated in the past," she said in opening budget hearings in May.

Asked to assess FEMA's response to the flooding along the Mississippi River, she responds, "So far, so good. They have really responded in a far more rapid way than FEMA has to major disasters in the last 10 years."

But, says the senator, "the big challenge will be when the water subsides" and FEMA has to coordinate damage estimates and distribution of federal aid.

While Ms. Mikulski's assessment of FEMA's performance is not exactly a ringing endorsement, it is a far cry from her description in September of the government response to Hurricane Andrew, which she called "pathetically sluggish and ill-planned."

Ms. Mikulski attributes much of the change at FEMA to Mr. Clinton's appointment in April of James Lee Witt, who headed the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. His predecessors, the senator notes, never had a background in managing emergencies.

FEMA now has 300 to 400 people working with other federal and local officials in five Midwest states, according to David Martin, an agency spokesman in Washington.

It has opened emergency centers staffed by representatives of other agencies and private humanitarian organizations, such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army.

Among other things, FEMA provides emergency cash vouchers for clothing, food and shelter and emergency home loans.

In addition, with a keen eye toward public relations, the agency has been providing live satellite feeds of its flood relief efforts for four hours every afternoon to any television station that wants to pick them up.

For FEMA, the flooding offers an opportunity to redeem itself in the eyes of Senator Mikulski. For Ms. Mikulski, the flooding represents a "galvanizing event" that, she hopes, will be the catalyst for passage of her legislation.

Her bill, she says, would "bring down the fire wall" between FEMA's planning for nuclear war and its planning for natural disasters, make the agency capable of responding to all hazards, and have it develop an emergency plan in each area of the country based on the disasters most likely to occur.

The legislation closely follows the recommendations of a study by the National Academy of Public Administration -- ordered by Congress last September in the wake of the Hurricane Andrew -- which was harshly critical of the 14-year-old agency.

The report, delivered in February, said that "FEMA is not certain of its role, has no central, strategic planning process, lacks the basic management systems to function effectively, and has not had the leadership to bring the agency together."

The panel made a series of recommendations for major revisions in the organization and operation of the agency "to create the high-performance, high-reliability agency the public and Congress want and deserve."

The report came a week after the Palm Beach Post reported in February that during the 1980s FEMA spent about 78 percent of its budget on a top-secret program to develop a vast communications network that would survive nuclear attack.

Explaining the reasoning behind her bill, Ms. Mikulski noted that, "The people of Maryland . . . are more likely to be hit by a hurricane in Ocean City than we are to see fleets of Russians coming up the Chesapeake Bay."

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