FEMA needs overhaul, says La. senator
Copyright 2006 The Times-Picayune Publishing Company
Military should be first responders in national disaster, senator says
By BRUCE HAMILTON
Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
The Federal Emergency Management Agency must be restructured, and its officials should not be the lead responders in any national disaster, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., told business leaders at the Greater Slidell Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon Thursday.
As the next hurricane season approaches, Vitter reassured the audience that he is pressing for federal bureaucratic reforms to prevent the kind of governmental failures that followed Hurricane Katrina, as well as lobbying for infrastructure to prevent flooding.
Vitter acknowledged that "enormous improvements are needed in disaster response" at the federal level. "Clearly, FEMA needs fundamental restructuring," he said. In Washington, he said, the question is not whether the agency must be revamped, but how. He said much congressional debate has centered on removing FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security to better focus its role.
Gifts of umbrellas had been left on the lunch tables by the event's sponsors, and the senator used them to poke fun at the beleaguered agency. "According to FEMA, they are half an inch too short," he said, provoking giggles from the audience. FEMA plans to commandeer the substandard umbrellas, Vitter joked, and deliver regulation models by February 2008 at a cost of $57.22 each.
On a more serious note, he said FEMA responders should be better trained so they can help towns and cities "over the long haul," rather than rotating through an area and having "to kick things up to Washington" for approval or solutions. "We need real constancy, real reliability," he said.
One of the major lessons of Katrina is that the first responders should be uniformed military officers, Vitter said. In a crisis, the lead response agency should be the Department of Defense, he said. Defense personnel didn't arrive locally until several days after the hurricane, but "when those boots hit the ground, the situation began to turn a corner," he said.
Before attending the chamber lunch, the senator joined local officials on a bus tour of some of Slidell's badly damaged areas, such as the lower Pontchartain Drive corridor and Westchester subdivision. Led by Mayor Ben Morris, the group stopped at Salmen High School and visited its cafeteria-auditorium.
Vitter recalled the experience during his speech, referring to the damage at Salmen High, where the walls are rimed with the head-high floodwater lines and flakes of dried mud crunched underfoot. "To stand there and see the devastation . . . to do that really gets your attention," he said. "That really makes it real for me."
Vitter said he wants part of $20 billion in hurricane relief recently requested by the White House to focus on protection for the vulnerable parts of St. Tammany, Orleans and St. Bernard parishes. He said a gated structure should be installed through the Rigolets and Lake Borgne to cut storm surge dramatically.
Flood gate key component
The open gate would not impede normal tidal flow, but it could be closed as a hurricane approaches to stop surge from reaching highly populated areas, Vitter said. Such a structure "is going to have to be a key component" of emergency preparedness.
The senator said he is proposing a Louisiana Flood Control Protection Council that would provide oversight on Army Corps of Engineers projects. It would be a nine-member body with three corps representatives and six independent engineering experts, and it would work "to avoid the kind of catastrophic design mistakes the corps has committed" in the past, he said.
Vitter said the average time it takes for the corps to begin construction on a project is 11 years, which he blasted as "ridiculous." He said the proposed council would cut that time for vital jobs such as flood protection structures.
On more pressing matters, Vitter said, he is lobbying to have as much debris removed from local areas as possible, especially in drainage canals and ditches. He is backing a measure that would exempt local authorities from having to pay a 25 percent contribution on federally sponsored emergency projects such as debris removal.
The measure would give the Agriculture Department secretary waiver authority to forego the contribution required by the Stafford Act. Vitter said he believes Congress will pass the measure: "It has a very, very good chance of success, and that should give local governments a lot more confidence and breathing room" in handling Katrina's aftermath.
Finally, Vitter advised local authorities to press for improvements in state government. Members of Congress are following attempts such as the drive to consolidate New Orleans' tax assessors, and they notice when those efforts fail, he said. Successes such as the recent levee board consolidation, Vitter said, build their confidence in Louisiana at a time when its representatives are seeking billions of aid dollars, he said.