2 years after Katrina, FEMA still not ready
Report says changes can't be implemented
By Billy House
The Tampa Tribune
Copyright 2007 The Tribune Co. Publishes The Tampa Tribune
WASHINGTON — Significant improvements in the federal response to a catastrophic hurricane are unlikely to be implemented or "realistically tested" by the upcoming hurricane season, warns a new government report.
The report was released Tuesday as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency came under congressional grilling about why his agency does not have a fully updated disaster-response plan ready - two years after Hurricane Katrina.
"As it enters the 2007 hurricane season, FEMA is an organization in transition that is working to implement the reorganization mandated by the Post-Katrina Reform Act," states the Government Accountability Office report.
"We are concerned, however, that if the revisions are not completed prior to the beginning of the 2007 hurricane season, it is unlikely that the changes resulting from these revisions could be effectively implemented for the 2007 hurricane season," the report's authors wrote.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to officially forecast on Tuesday that this year will bring a busier-than-normal Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.
FEMA already advised Congress in April that a major revision of the agency's catastrophic disaster-response plan would be delayed past the start of hurricane season because some issues remained complex and would take more time.
"We're going to try to get this ready," FEMA Director R. David Paulison reiterated during an appearance Tuesday before the House Committee on Homeland Security. "But it won't be by June 1." Paulison said he could not be pinned down on the exact date the new National Response Plan will be ready.
Despite the delays, Paulison said, he is confident the agency will be able to respond should a catastrophic hurricane hit this year. He noted that the more modest modifications to the agency's response plans were made in May 2006.
The National Response Plan is essentially a strategy that establishes practices and procedures for coordinating disaster-response efforts among federal, state and local governments.
Democrat Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, chairman of the committee, was among several of the panel's lawmakers unhappy that the more comprehensive revisions won't be in place by the start of hurricane season.
"As we all know, FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina was abysmal. Last year, Congress passed major FEMA reforms with an expectation that we would see some real progress at this beleaguered agency," Thompson said.
Thompson warned that "FEMA will have a lot of explaining to do if it is not ready when the hurricane makes landfall this season."
The White House had ordered Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to revise the National Response Plan after FEMA bore the brunt of the criticism of shortcomings revealed in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Despite Paulison's assurances to the committee Tuesday, the new Government Accountability Office report questions whether the steps now being taken by FEMA will assure there are adequate disaster-response plans and capabilities - in areas such as emergency communications, search and rescue, mass care and sheltering.
Those questions remain because "none of these initiatives appear to have been tested on a scale that reasonably simulates the conditions and demand[s] they would face following a major or catastrophic disaster," such as a Category 4 or 5 hurricane, the report states.