Study calls for abolishing FEMA

Senate report urges creation of new disaster agency

April 27, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON --The Federal Emergency Management Agency was so fundamentally dysfunctional during and after Hurricane Katrina that Congress should abolish it and create a new disaster response agency from scratch, a draft bipartisan Senate report has concluded.

The new agency, which would be part of the Department of Homeland Security, as FEMA is, should be more powerful, with additional components that would give it a budget twice as big as FEMA's, the report recommends.

It would assume functions now spread throughout Homeland Security, such as preparing for disasters and terrorism attacks, protecting the nation's infrastructure and distributing grants to state and local governments.

During catastrophes such as Katrina, the agency's director would report directly to the president, as the chairman of the Defense Department's Joint Chiefs of Staff does.

6,000 employees

FEMA has a budget of $4.8 billion and about 6,000 employees.

Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican who is chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the new agency would be "better equipped with the tools to prepare for and respond to a disaster."

The committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, also endorsed creation of what would be called the National Preparedness and Response Authority. The full committee has not yet debated or voted on the draft recommendations.

The report has not been shared with the Bush administration, but officials at Homeland Security said that from what they had heard, they were not impressed.

"It is time to stop rearranging organization charts and start focusing on how governments at all levels are preparing for the fast-approaching storm season," said Russ Knocke, the department's press secretary.

Since Katrina struck in August, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has been working on his own alternative to the agency's current structure, which he has described as "retooling" FEMA.

He has brought in professional disaster managers to replace Michael Brown, the former FEMA director, and other senior officials, many of whom had little emergency-management experience.

Vacant jobs filled

He also has moved to fill hundreds of other vacant jobs, establish a better disaster-resistant communications system and set up a way to ensure that the agency can more rapidly deliver emergency supplies.

He has also called for better coordination between FEMA and the Defense Department, among other agencies. But he has not called for major structural changes.

The proposal by the Senate committee leaders will join others before Congress. Other proposals call for keeping FEMA intact but removing it from Homeland Security and having its director report directly to the president, as was the case before Homeland Security was created after the 2001 terrorism attacks.

In a report released in February, Frances Fragos Townsend, the president's homeland security adviser, called for other agencies to pick up certain responsibilities assigned to Homeland Security, such as providing temporary housing to disaster victims.

Bruce Baughman, Alabama's director of emergency management and president of the National Emergency Management Association, said that despite the bureaucratic-sounding nature of the Senate committee's draft recommendations, they would create an entity more capable than FEMA has been of preparing for and responding to disasters.

The new agency "ties all the pieces together," he said.

Lieberman said in a statement that the Senate investigation, which was based on 22 hearings that included testimony by 85 witnesses and 830,000 pages of documents, reached the same conclusion as a separate House investigation, that the response to Katrina was flawed at all levels of government.

"For years, government officials at all levels neglected their duties to prepare for a forewarned catastrophe," he said. "The absence of effective leadership at all levels of government foreclosed the possibility of overcoming the lack of preparedness. These failures cost lives and multiplied the anguish of the storm's survivors."

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