A very risky business

Q AND A WITH...Michael Chertoff

December 11, 2005|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

During a visit to Baltimore last week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff promised to "re-engineer" the Federal Emergency Management Agency in response to fierce criticism of its performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA chief Michael D. Brown resigned in the midst of a storm of accusation over the agency's apparent failure to prepare adequately for this year's disastrous flooding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Brown and other federal officials were accused of failing to act decisively to rescue, feed and house victims of the flooding despite repeated pleas from state and local officials in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Chertoff is also fending off criticism from former 9/11 Commission members of his agency's performance in implementing improvements in the nation's defenses against terrorism in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. He took time during his visit to talk with The Sun. Here are some edited excerpts from that conversation.

When will you make a decision about filling top FEMA jobs, and what are your plans for strengthening FEMA?

We have under way a really very substantial project this next month to look at, complete the process of looking at, a re-engineering of FEMA. What are FEMA's core missions? What are things that are being done in a 20th-century way that ought to be done in a 21st-century way?

We've talked about things like, how do we do logistics? We have models in the private sector of ways to be very nimble in moving products around, and there may be some lessons there for us in terms of how we deal with our organization.

Issues of customer service - how do we, in an interactive world, get out into the field more, so we can get to people who need help as opposed to making them come to us?

This may or may not yield dramatic changes in every area, but it will almost certainly yield some changes in every area. So, I think that the process, that's a very important part of the process to make some final decisions about who ought to occupy the various seats in the agency.

What are some of the weaknesses you have seen in FEMA operations that need to be shored up before the next hurricane season?

One is logistics: How do you get things to where they need to be quickly, and then how do you track them? How do you deal with the fact that there may be a sudden change in plans?

You know, Katrina was just by an order of magnitude a more complex hurricane than any I think anybody in the agency remembers.

One of the complexities was, unlike most hurricanes, where the people who are affected are really still remaining locally oriented, here people went all over the country. So, the normal plan, which is, "Let's get a lot of supplies to people in one geographic area," had to be put to one side, and the question became: How do you supply people, or how do you interact with people, who are now in 50 states?

The scale, number of people, was 10 to 20 times what you get in other hurricanes, so I think that the issue of a logistical approach that allows us to do the kind of rapid change in execution that you see in, for example, some of the big freight forwarders, I think that's the kind of thing we need to look at.

Secondly, I think, just in terms of receiving and addressing people's claims for relief, whether it be individual assistance or housing assistance: Again, the scale of what was confronted and the geographic scope was many, many times what had been experienced previously. So, having the ability to scale up a normal response using some of the modern tools we have, you know, BlackBerries, laptops, things of that sort, that's the kind of thing we're looking at.

I've told people they should really think out of the box. They should not be afraid to propose radical solutions in terms of how we array ourselves to do these challenges because I think everything modern organization tells you is, everything moves more quickly, it's much more interactive in the 21st century, and therefore we have to make ourselves more nimble.

Documents that [Louisiana] Gov. [Kathleen Babineaux] Blanco released [this month] highlighted how some of the disagreements between the federal and state levels really slowed things down. Are you rethinking the process you're going through to federalize something, to say: "OK, we don't have time to debate. People's lives are at stake. We're going to go ahead"?

I haven't seen the documents. I can't comment on them specifically. I think part of this general "lessons learned" that we're evaluating is, again, how do we move quickly, particularly when you're facing a catastrophe that overwhelms the normal processes?

I think it's a complicated issue ... on the one hand, there is the desire to move rapidly and bring all the resources to bear quickly. On the other hand, state and local government still is traditionally and legally the owner of the principal responsibility for what goes on in the state's area - and often, frankly, they're the best informed.

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