Fixing FEMA

From Scout:

From NYT

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was so fundamentally dysfunctional during Hurricane Katrina that Congress should abolish it and create a new disaster response agency from scratch, according to a draft of bipartisan recommendations proposed by a Senate committee.

Senator Susan Collins, the Maine Republican who is chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the new agency would be “better equipped with the tools to prepare for and respond to a disaster.”

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, also endorsed creation of what would be called the National Preparedness and Response Authority. But the full committee has not yet debated or voted on the draft recommendations.

FEMA is a broken shell of its former self and something must be done. However Lieberman and Collins “led the effort to create the DHS that swallowed up FEMA.” And it was the Bush administration that began a process shortly after coming to power that eroded FEMA’s capabilities with policy changes and budget cuts …..

In June, [2004] Pleasant Mann, a 16-year FEMA veteran who heads the agency’s government employee union, wrote members of Congress to warn of the agency’s decay. “Over the past three-and-one-half years, FEMA has gone from being a model agency to being one where funds are being misspent, employee morale has fallen, and our nation’s emergency management capability is being eroded,” he wrote. “Our professional staff are being systematically replaced by politically connected novices and contractors.”

Given this bunch ruined FEMA it is now difficult to trust them with fixing FEMA. Yet the state of FEMA now is so bad that for the safety of Americans something must be done. I suggest they follow the 2004 testimony of former FEMA head James Lee Witt who had built the agency up to the success it once was before they got a hold of it.

(click Read More for that testimony)

From Scout:

As you continue to examine DHS and its growth, I want you to know that I and many others in the emergency management community across the country are deeply concerned about the direction FEMA is headed. First, we are greatly concerned that the successful partnership that was built between local/state/federal partners and their ability to communicate, coordinate, train, prepare, and respond has been sharply eroded. Second, FEMA, having lost its status as an independent agency, is being buried beneath a massive bureaucracy whose main and seemingly only focus is fighting terrorism while an all hazards mission is getting lost in the shuffle.

I firmly believe that FEMA should be extracted from the DHS bureaucracy and reestablish it as an independent agency reporting directly to the President, but allowing for the Homeland Security Secretary to task FEMA to coordinate the Federal response following terrorist incidents. Third, the FEMA Director has lost Cabinet status and along with it the close relationship to the President and Cabinet Affairs. I believe we could not have been as responsive as we were during my tenure at FEMA had there had been several levels of Federal bureaucracy between myself and the White House. I am afraid communities across the country are starting to suffer the impact of having FEMA buried within a bureaucracy rather than functioning as a small but agile independent agency that coordinates Federal response effectively and efficiently after a disaster.

FEMA was assembled in 1979 in much the same way that the various agencies of DHS have been put together. Although the reorganization that brought the various agencies together under FEMA was on a much smaller and more manageable scale, it took our country close to 15 years to get it right. When FEMA was formed there were several cultures all being thrown together under one new roof. The dominant “top down” culture within early FEMA traced its roots to the days of civil defense. This culture was probably necessary for those types of national security oriented activities. As a State Director of Emergency Management, I was often on the receiving end of FEMA’s “top down,” rigid, and sometimes inflexible approach. It is for this reason that I was determined, as FEMA Director, to take the Agency in a new direction. I wanted to move towards becoming an organization where the needs of the stakeholders and employees were valued and heeded. DHS is struggling with growing pains similar to what FEMA struggled with for the first 15 years of its existence.

However, I continue to be concerned about the scope of the task that has been given to Under Secretary Hutchinson and Secretary Ridge. FEMA was an agency of 2,600 permanent employees and 4,000 disaster reservists and it took 15 years to get on the right track. The reorganization taking place with DHS is several scales above the FEMA reorganization and they are being asked to accomplish this massive effort in a world full of uncertainty regarding future terrorist activity and the certainty of future natural disasters. As you may know, I was not in favor of creating such a large Department all at once. I supported the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, but I do not think this was accomplished in the right way. I always thought we should start with the areas that needed the greatest and most immediate attention–specifically those activities involving the gathering, assimilation, and dissemination of terrorist intelligence to state and local officials. Also, I thought it made sense to engage in efforts to improve the security of our most vulnerable critical infrastructure and targeted industries. I felt that many of the pieces in place to manage the consequences of a disaster or terrorist attack were not broken and didn’t need “fixing.” I saw no need to reinvent the wheel on the consequence management side of emergency management–particularly when there were several other more pressing areas that needed to be addressed regarding counterterrorism efforts.

In an effort to build other Directorates within DHS that need more help, vital pieces of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate–FEMA–are being moved or underfunded to prop up these other very critical areas. Programs–like the very successful Fire Grants–are being moved out of FEMA. And the Emergency Management Performance Grants (EMPG) which provide the backbone to our emergency management systems are being cut and significantly restructured in a very detrimental way. In fact some estimates suggest that the 25-percent cap on personnel costs within the EMPG could result in more than half of the country’s 4,000-plus emergency managers losing their jobs. By throwing all of these disparate pieces together in the DHS stew, we have not only diluted the concentration on some of the most critical parts of our counterterrorism efforts, but we are allowing scarce resources to be directed away from consequence management. Our Nation’s emergency management system has often been held up as an international model; however, this country’s well-oiled emergency management infrastructure–that has been built over many years–is now in great jeopardy as DHS attempts to build capabilities in other areas of the Department. </blockquote