Senators: 'Bumbling' FEMA must go
Bipartisan panel finds disaster agency beyond repair
Thursday, April 27, 2006; Posted: 10:40 a.m. EDT (14:40 GMT)
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which floundered in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, should be abolished and replaced with a new organization, a Senate committee recommended Thursday.
"Our first and most important recommendation is to abolish FEMA," said Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "FEMA is discredited, demoralized, and dysfunctional. It is beyond repair. Just tweaking the organizational chart will not solve the problem."
"FEMA has become a symbol of a bumbling bureaucracy in which the American people have completely lost faith."
"Katrina has taught us all the bitter lessons of the cost of failing to build and maintain a true national emergency planning and response system," Collins said. "The first obligation of government is to protect our people. In Katrina, we failed at all levels of government to meet that fundamental obligation."
The committee report -- which was also endorsed by the top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut -- proposes creating "a stronger, more capable structure within" the Department of Homeland Security. (Watch Sen. Collins calls FEMA "dysfunctional" and "beyond repair" -- 3:42)
Two other major reviews of Katrina relief efforts have also cited numerous problems with FEMA and made dozens of recommendations. But the Senate recommendations are the first to say the problems with FEMA are so severe the organization should be abolished. (Watch what the Senate panel recommended about FEMA -- :38)
A Department of Homeland Security spokesman said he had not yet seen the report, but expressed doubts about the wisdom of its main finding, as the 2006 hurricane season is set to start on June 1.
"It's really time to stop playing with the organizational chart and realize it's time to start focusing on what governments at all levels are doing to prepare for the fast-approaching storm season," spokesman Russ Knocke said.
Knocke said DHS already is taking actions to implement the lessons learned during a White House review of Katrina failures.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, Collins, Lieberman and their committee were instrumental in the creation of DHS and FEMA's integration into it. Congress would have to pass new legislation to smash FEMA and build its replacement.
John Copenhaver, a former FEMA regional director, said FEMA should have remained a Cabinet-level agency and not folded into DHS.
"I agree that it, to some extent, needs serious revamping but I don't believe it should be abolished," Copenhaver said. "I think that that's the wrong thing to do, and abolishing it and re-creating another agency is simply reinventing the wheel."
Nearly eight months after Katrina unleashed catastrophic flooding in New Orleans, estimates are that more than six out of 10 New Orleans residents are still living outside the city.
Across Mississippi, almost 100,000 people are still living in nearly 37,000 travel trailers and mobile homes provided by FEMA. About 42,500 FEMA trailers are across Louisiana and 2,300 in Alabama.
The storm claimed 294 lives in Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia.
President Bush is scheduled to visit the region Thursday.
The Republican and Democratic heads of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs listed 86 recommendations in its report and held 22 hearings on the Katrina disaster. The committee called 85 witnesses, including DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff. Members reviewed 838,000 documents and interviewed former FEMA head Michael Brown.
Brown, who resigned amid criticism following Katrina, said the new agency would basically have the same mission FEMA had a year ago before its disaster planning responsibilities were taken away to focus solely on responding to calls for help, The Associated Press reported.
"It sounds like they're just re-creating the wheel and making it look like they're calling for change," Brown told AP. "If indeed that's all they're doing, they owe more than that to the American public."
The report says DHS should create a National Preparedness and Response Authority within DHS to fuse the department's emergency management, preparedness and critical infrastructure assets "into a powerful new organization that can confront the challenges of natural and manmade catastrophes."
While the NPRA would be within DHS, it should be a "distinct entity" and should be protected from diminution by the department. Numerous witnesses testified that FEMA had been stripped of resources and power in recent years, making it less nimble and effective. The report says the director of NPRA should hold the rank of deputy secretary and should report directly to the secretary of homeland security, but would serve as an advisor to the president for national emergency management, much as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff advises the president on military matters.
"The Director would have a direct line of communications to the President during catastrophes," the report reads.
The leadership of the new organization should also have direct skills in crisis management, the recommendations say. Brown and several other FEMA managers were widely criticized because they did not have disaster experience before coming to the agency.
The committee's other recommendations run the gamut from improving coordination and communication abilities to fixing training, streamlining requests for assistance, and better delineating the responsibilities of various organizations.