Extreme makeover, FEMA edition

During his campaign, President-Elect Obama repeatedly promised to overhaul FEMA and now those promises have apparently become a plan, as reported by  Washington Post’s Al Kamen. 

Back in February, Obamaspoke to the residents of New Orleans:

If catastrophe comes, the American people must be able to call on a competent government. When I am President, the days of dysfunction and cronyism in Washington will be over. The director of FEMA will report to me. He or she will have the highest qualifications in emergency management. And I won’t just tell you that I’ll insulate that office from politics – I’ll guarantee it, by giving my FEMA director a fixed term like the director of the Federal Reserve. I don’t want FEMA to be thinking for one minute about the politics of a crisis. I want FEMA to do its job, which is protecting the American people – not protecting a President’s politics

Per the Wapo article, the most likely plan is ” to break off the agency from the Department of Homeland Security, a move that would in itself help restore the pride FEMA folks felt when it was an independent agency.”

As for FEMA director, the likely pick is former FEMA head James Lee Witt, though he may only be brought in for a short time to help “whip it into shape,” much like he did post-Andrew back in 1993.

After Witt runs the first lap, it’s hypothesized he will hand off the post to his deputy administrator, Mark Merrit, who worked with Witt in his private, and highly lucrative, disaster recovery consultancy. This is where things might get a bit dicey.

Witt is likely to be grilled about his work on Katrina relief. Witt and Merritt began their work in the days after the hurricane, when Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco hired their disaster recovery firm in an open-ended, no-bid contract.

An NBC News investigation of Louisiana state records found that James Lee Witt Associates was paid more than $40 million for its recovery work. Merritt, who had been the firm’s top manager in Louisiana, tallied $506,000 in billable hours over the 10-month span from September 2005 through June 2006, NBC News found in its July 2007 report.

Witt Associates allegedly billed the state double what it actually paid its subcontractors, the report said. For instance, the firm subcontracted an Indiana company to manage recovery grants. That company’s workers were paid $19 to $20 an hour, but they billed Witt Associates $37.50 an hour, and Witt Associates billed the state $75 an hour, according to the NBC News report.

On the other hand, Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal is reported to have been most pleased the with firm’s work there and has said he intended to keep them on.

As for other matters, such as the levee situation and what bodes for the Bush-created Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding, no detailed planshave been announced. I’m sure our NOLA correspondents can bring us those details as they take shape.

4 thoughts on “Extreme makeover, FEMA edition

  1. Well one bit of good news is that taking FEMA out of DHS could mean taking it out from under the purview of Joe Lieberman’s oversight committee.

  2. Well, the wingnuts will soon be exclaiming that the Dem contractors were as guilty as Republican contractors in overbilling for their post-Katrina work. Of course, we can respond that the Democratic contractors actually did their work competently and satisfactorily.

  3. The number bump up from 20 dollars to 75 dollars looks bad if you don’t grasp that companies bill their workers hours differently from what the workers cost them and that there is such a thing as overhead. I’d have to know what kind, if any, of health insurance and workman’s comp and etc… the company had to hold for its employees before I’d call the differential any kind of “overbilling” in a technical sense.

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