Revamping FEMA

December 07, 2005

The planned overhaul of the beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency is a welcome move, and not just because of the agency's glaring shortcomings in its handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Its service to disaster victims had been lacking before the storm.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on Monday that his revamping of FEMA would result in changes in every area. One would hope this means the bureaucratic obstacles, the bad planning, and the mismanagement and miscommunication on display in the wake of Katrina - and still occurring today - will be tackled aggressively.

Given the agency's ongoing problems helping displaced Katrina victims find and pay for housing, Mr. Chertoff's stated intent to improve customer service at FEMA and speed up delivery of housing assistance is encouraging. This is one area that should be given priority. Reports of the very real difficulties displaced families are having securing suitable housing more than three months after the hurricane are disturbing.

Most Americans now know that the problems on exhibit at FEMA were the result of bad management, inept planning, an embarrassing lack of cooperation and coordination with other federal, state and local agencies, and little experience with a hurricane of the magnitude of Katrina. Agency administrators could have mitigated the damage, however, if they had paid attention to the government's own review of the agency's response and recovery programs.

Last year, the Office of Management and Budget evaluated FEMA and found it wanting in many areas, including its management of victim assistance programs.

Mr. Chertoff says the new plan should be implemented by June 1, in time for the 2006 hurricane season. By then, FEMA's logistical planning capabilities and its ability to deliver service to victims - the top two weaknesses the overhaul would ostensibly address - should be up to par.

If he is to restore the credibility and effectiveness of this vital public agency, Mr. Chertoff must ensure that every department head at FEMA, and every employee with any supervisory responsibility - including those at regional offices around the country - commit to implementing the changes he calls for and altering the bureaucratic mindset that may have perpetuated some of the problems at the agency.

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