FEMA by any other name ...

April 30, 2006

Old-timers in the emergency management game have seen all these pledges of reform and restructure many times before -- every decade or so when a natural or man-made disaster catches the nation flat-footed.

Then, memories of the disaster fade, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency once again becomes an afterthought. Its budget is cut; its status is reduced. Top jobs become sinecures for inexperienced hacks.

Unless that pattern is broken, an ambitious new package of recommendations by leaders of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, offered last week in the wake of the nation's "bumbling response" to Hurricane Katrina, will have as little effect as similar reform proposals offered a dozen years ago and a dozen years before that.

With this year's hurricane season just a month away, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff ought to simply adopt the best of the recommendations: to return to FEMA the emergency preparedness functions that he took away in the reshuffling after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

That would guarantee some real progress before the whole exercise gets lost in the emotional politics of an election year.

The committee's exhaustive investigation -- like others that followed Katrina -- found the major failures were less structural than human, a dearth of leadership from President Bush on down. After 9/11, FEMA fared even worse than usual in the bureaucratic turf games because the political establishment was so obsessed with terrorism.

FEMA never should have been made a stepchild of the unwieldy Homeland Security Department. But committee leaders have proposed what seems the wisest course now: to restore FEMA's independent status within the department, give it a direct line to the president during disasters, restore its control over preparedness as well as response and fatten its budget to cover its awesome responsibility.

The silliest recommendation from panel Chairwoman Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, and ranking Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut is to change FEMA's name because they believe its reputation has been tarred beyond repair.

They can call it "Rosebud" if they want to. But that's not going to fool anybody. Doing a really good job the next time disaster strikes would be the best way to burnish that image.

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