FEMA and DHS: "It's going to be a partnership"
Times-Picayune (New Orleans) Editorial
FEMA's abysmal response to Hurricane Katrina was blamed in part on its diminished authority after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The agency was put under the new Department of Homeland Security, and terrorism became the focus rather than a broad, all-hazards approach to disaster readiness and response.
This week, though, the federal government took an important step toward reform, announcing changes that address those valid criticisms by revising the nation's disaster plan and restoring FEMA's leading role in disaster response.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said that the 427-page "National Response Plan" that was in place when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast has been scrapped in favor of a more flexible 90-page electronic document, written after consulting with state and local officials.
While the previous plan stressed terrorism, the new plan outlines different responses for natural disasters and terrorist events. It also allows state and local officials to make changes, as needed, while responding to a disaster.
Mr. Chertoff called it a "living document" that will emphasize change in response to lessons learned. That's surely a smarter way to handle something as unpredictable as a disaster, no matter what its cause.
FEMA also has regained its lead role in disaster response. The change falls short of the independent status that some were urging after the storm: Homeland Security still will have management responsibilities during a disaster. But FEMA will have the authority to shift federal resources to address urgent needs. And the head of FEMA will be the primary adviser to the president on disaster response.
A rule that required the Department of Homeland Security to declare a disaster an incident of national significance before a federal response can be launched also has been thrown out. It took days for that to happen after Katrina, and scrapping the requirement was a good move.
"It's a whole new culture of how FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security are going to respond to disasters," said FEMA Executive Director David Paulison. "It's going to be a partnership."
That partnership should result in a more nimble response the next time disaster strikes. Hurricane Katrina victims suffered terribly in the days after the storm -- going without food, water and care for the sick and elderly -- and the federal government's slow, bumbling response was to blame. That must not happen again.
Copyright 2008 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company