Homeland security chief set to `re-engineer' FEMA

Chertoff discusses plans while in city to announce Hopkins-based `center of excellence'

December 06, 2005|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said yesterday that he is planning to "re-engineer" the beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has continued to come in for harsh criticism for its performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In an interview with The Sun, Chertoff said the overhaul would be modeled on the just-in-time delivery systems widely used in private industry. He plans to announce the changes, part of a plan to modernize the way FEMA does business, next month.

"It almost certainly will yield some changes in every area" of FEMA, Chertoff said. "We have to make ourselves more nimble."

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday erroneously reported that Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said he would replace acting Director R. David Paulson and acting Deputy Director Patrick Rhode at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Chertoff said in an interview that he would not make final decisions on who should fill those roles until after an agency review is complete.

Chertoff was in Baltimore to announce that the Johns Hopkins University will receive $15 million from the Department of Homeland Security to research improvements in national disaster preparedness and response. The university will contribute $3.5 million to the project.

Hopkins beat out 33 other institutions to establish a center that will study deterrence, prevention and response to catastrophic events, including natural disasters.

The research is to focus on improving the government's ability to predict disasters and the damage they cause. It also will look for ways to better gauge the strength of local infrastructure, such as roads and dams, and develop sensors to detect a bioterror or chemical attack in its earliest stages.

In addition, researchers will investigate how officials at all levels of government communicate and make decisions in a disaster.

The new Hopkins Center for the Study of High Consequence Event Preparedness and Response, the Homeland Security Department's fifth university-based "center of excellence," will develop models and simulations of terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

The federal government came under fierce criticism for failing to fully incorporate into its preparations for Hurricane Katrina a 2004 modeling exercise on the impact of a hurricane in New Orleans.

The center will establish a "dialogue with some of the wisest and most perceptive thinkers" in the fields of science and security, Chertoff said at a ceremony at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He praised Hopkins for being "a pioneer in addressing some of the greatest challenges in science and medicine."

Almost three months after FEMA Director Michael Brown announced his departure, the agency is without a permanent director or deputy director. R. David Paulison, the U.S fire administrator, is acting director, and Brown's chief of staff, Patrick Rhode, remains acting deputy and chief of staff.

Chertoff said their replacements will be named once he has completed his plan to overhaul the emergency agency.

To improve FEMA's logistics operations, Chertoff said, he is looking at private-sector models, such as freight forwarders, to figure out how to deliver goods quickly and efficiently in a disaster.

The top two weaknesses the overhaul will address, he said, are the agency's logistical planning before and during an event, and its ability to deliver services to victims afterward.

Another goal of the revamped FEMA operation will be to adapt quickly to a change in plans or a disaster on a scale much larger than expected.

The overhaul is also designed to improve FEMA's customer service so that it can deliver payments and housing information more quickly to disaster victims.

In the aftermath of Katrina, Chertoff asked his deputy, Michael Jackson, to spearhead the overhaul of FEMA. Senior FEMA officials and others in the government and the private sector have been updating Chertoff weekly.

"I have told people they should really think out of the box," Chertoff said. "They should not be afraid to propose radical solutions."

Less clear is whether the overhaul will delineate the responsibilities of federal officials, as opposed to local ones, in an emergency.

Chertoff sidestepped that question, saying that "this is one of the great challenges in terms of how we go forward."

The test will come next hurricane season, and Chertoff said he expects to have the new plan implemented by June 1, when the 2006 season begins.

Chertoff also defended his department's new policy allowing airplane passengers to take some previously prohibited items on board, including scissors and screwdrivers.

The policy, announced last week, has been criticized on grounds that it weakens transportation security.

Chertoff said the decision reflects his focus on "managing risk" and his conclusion that airport screeners should spend more time looking for new kinds of explosives and less time confiscating hardware.

He said the complaints about the new policy are proof that the department is moving away from a "feel-good philosophy."

Also yesterday, the former 9/11 commission issued the Homeland Security Department a grade of D, noting that the department has failed to produce an assessment of the top threats facing the nation and the areas of the country that are most vulnerable to an attack from terrorists or nature, even though Congress required it to do so last summer.

Asked about the grade, Chertoff said, "I'm not sure what they're referring to."

siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

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