EDITORIAL: FEMA should be returned to Cabinet
Copyright 2006 Capital City Press
All Rights Reserved
By GERARD SHIELDS
With hurricane season less than two weeks away, Congress is playing proverbial political football with the agency designated to handle the nation's natural disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
A Senate committee has recommended scrapping the agency and starting over by creating a new, stronger department in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, where FEMA has existed since 2003.
A group of House members, however, has introduced legislation for FEMA to be taken out of DHS and restored to the independent, cabinet-level status it once held. Yet another group of House members has filed a competing bill that would also keep FEMA within DHS.
After the debacle of Hurricane Katrina last year, it is clear that FEMA should be restored to the independent status it once held under President Bill Clinton. For all the criticism leveled at FEMA Director Michael Brown for his performance during the disaster, Brown made salient points during his testimony before the Senate.
Brown noted that FEMA resources — money and staff — dwindled during the two years that the agency was under DHS, an agency created primarily to promote national security and prevent terrorist attacks.
Brown hit the nail on the head when he said that if the 17th Street Canal had been blown up by terrorists instead of breached by floodwater, every national leader from President Bush on down would have flocked to the city. As it was, Bush stayed on his Texas ranch for two days after the disaster and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff flew to Atlanta a day after the storm, to attend an avian flu conference.
Like Brown, former FEMA Director James Lee Witt argues that DHS cannot serve two masters: prevention and response. Witt, who led FEMA when it was considered to be at its pinnacle, contends that renaming the agency or leaving it where it is will not serve America.
"The director of FEMA must hold a seat on the presidential Cabinet in order to be able to communicate directly to the president and other critical parties during a crisis and every day of normal business operations," Witt said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., agrees. Shuster has introduced the RESPOND Act to take FEMA out of DHS. In making his case, Shuster notes that under DHS, FEMA suffered a massive brain drain of disaster professionals that left 8 out of 10 of its regional units led by acting directors. The overall vacancy rate for the agency was 20 percent, he said at a recent press conference.
Before the creation of DHS, FEMA had three national response teams, each with 125 members, Shuster said. By the time Katrina struck, budget cuts and personnel losses had eliminated one team completely and reduced the other two to fewer than 30 members each, he said.
"When FEMA was a strong, independent agency that was staffed by professionals and spoke for the president, it responded well to both natural disasters and terrorist attacks," Shuster said. "We know what the solution is. What we need now is the political will to act."
U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La., recently included returning FEMA to cabinet-level status in his 10-point plan to reform emergency response. Jindal's district was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
"Hurricanes Katrina and Rita showed the world that our government's emergency response was inadequate to meet the true needs of those on the ground," Jindal said in a statement.
But the move to take FEMA out of DHS is being met with great resistance, maybe the strongest coming from the Bush administration. In reaction to the RESPOND Act, DHS issued a press statement opposing the measure. The department contends that "ripping FEMA from DHS" would cripple the nation's ability to prepare and respond to natural disasters.
At the same time Shuster was speaking, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., was participating in a hearing to keep FEMA where it is. Thompson noted at a recent hearing that FEMA had failures when it was independent, whether it was the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco or the 1999 response to Hurricane Floyd in North Carolina.
"I don't want to constantly rearrange the boxes in the Department of Homeland Security," Thompson said. "At some point, we have to stop focusing on just the boxes and focus more on leadership and resources."
The two proposals to keep the new agency in DHS rightly call for the FEMA director to answer directly to the president in catastrophes. Though welcomed, the move is not enough.