Senators want FEMA replaced; Bush team doesn't like proposal
Copyright 2006 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
By JULIA MALONE and KEN HERMAN
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The government's botched response to Hurricane Katrina shows that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is beyond repair and should be abolished, U.S. senators said Thursday.
With the next hurricane season just weeks away, a bipartisan Senate report concluded that the federal agency should be replaced with a new national response agency that would be part of the huge Homeland Security Department but would have greater independence than FEMA.
"FEMA has become a symbol of a bumbling bureaucracy in which the American people have completely lost faith," Senate Homeland Security Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine) said in releasing her panel's seven-month Katrina study titled "A Nation Still Unprepared."
The new entity's director would have direct access to the White House and the power to distribute preparedness grants to states and localities and 10 regional "strike forces" for disaster response.
The proposal to wipe out FEMA got an immediate cold shoulder from the Bush administration.
"Now is not the time to really look at moving organizational boxes," Fran Townsend, Bush's homeland security adviser, said aboard Air Force One, which took President Bush to the Gulf region to check on the Katrina recovery efforts.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said FEMA and the department are now concentrating on measures to prepare for the June 1 start of the hurricane season, including improving communications systems and granting contracts to remove debris, and doesn't have time for a reorganization.
Collins countered that the Senate plan would be a "drastically different agency" and charged that the current emergency response structure remains "deeply flawed."
Even so, she said she was doubtful that an overhaul could be enacted before this year's storm season.
The president, touring rebuilding projects in storm-devastated New Orleans, made no comment about the report.
"We pray that there is no hurricane this coming year, but we're working together to make sure the response will be as efficient as possible," he said.
Bush viewed rebuilding sites punctuated by reminders of how much more work needs to be done as he headed to Ethel Williams' house, which is being gutted so it can be rebuilt by a volunteer program operated by Catholic Charities.
Joining him was New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.).
Bush also went to a nearby Habitat for Humanity project aimed at building 280 housing units on a lot vacant for 15 years. Donning a carpenter's apron, he shook hands and helped volunteers carry roof-support beams and hammer nails. He later visited Biloxi, Miss., to highlight additional volunteer efforts.
The Senate review, much like one issued earlier by a House Katrina inquiry, spread the blame to all levels of government for the failure to plan, prepare and respond effectively to a disaster that had been predicted for decades for the New Orleans area.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the senior Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee, seconded those findings and also charged that the president had "failed to provide critical leadership when it was most needed" before and during Katrina.
Lieberman said the White House and Bush "seemed surprisingly detached" until Aug. 31, two days after the storm hit the Gulf region. He also faulted the White House for failing to release more internal documents to assist the Senate committee.
Collins avoided rebuking the president directly and highlighted the "blatant insubordination" of then-FEMA chief Michael Brown, who admitted publicly that he did not pass along information about the collapse of levees in New Orleans to his own boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.