Congress, White House Divided Over Rebuilding FEMA

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Homeland Security are not adequately prepared for the hurricane season that begins in 34 days, the White House and Senate leaders said yesterday as a critical Senate investigation into the response to Hurricane Katrina sparked a sharp congressional debate over whether to abolish and rebuild FEMA.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said FEMA "has become a symbol of a bumbling bureaucracy" that must be dismantled, and merely "tweaking the organizational chart" will not solve failures exposed by the hurricane.

"Are we prepared enough? We're not, and we're still operating with a flawed system" heading into the June 1 start of the storm season, Collins said.

She and ranking member Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) released 86 recommendations from the panel's forthcoming report, "Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared."

The eight-month, bipartisan investigation's central finding is that FEMA should be replaced by a new National Preparedness and Response Authority. Its head would report to the secretary of Homeland Security but serve as the president's top adviser for national emergency matters, akin to the military role played by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The new agency would recombine disaster preparedness and response activities, reclaim power over billions of dollars of state and local grants, gain responsibility for securing critical infrastructure, and restore an emphasis on natural, as well as terrorist, threats. Those functions and approaches were dispersed or downgraded by the Bush administration as FEMA was merged into DHS.

The White House yesterday rejected the Senate committee plan but said that storm preparations are not yet complete.

"As we're headed into this hurricane season, now is not the time to really look at moving organizational boxes," said Frances Fragos Townsend, homeland security adviser to President Bush, who accompanied him to the Gulf Coast to see recovery operations. "We are far better prepared today than we were this time last year, and we'll be even better prepared by June 1."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, speaking at George Mason University, endorsed several Senate findings, but opposed making FEMA an independent agency and said renaming it would be like "slapping a fresh coat of paint on."

"I'm held accountable. I want to make sure as a consequence that I have full command and control over my department," he said.

Several members of Congress and outside experts praised the report, however, or said it did not go far enough. Wherever FEMA goes, they said, it is critical to strengthen its leadership, budget, regional commands, ties to states and cities, and core functions. Any reorganization would be FEMA's third in four years.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), ranking member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and others introduced a bill yesterday that would alter FEMA but not dismantle it.

But Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a member of Collins's committee, said FEMA should be restored to independent Cabinet-level status. House panels are preparing related bills as the House plans a week of action on Katrina issues May 22.

The timing is driven by hurricane season and this fall's elections, as Congress races to act with or without the White House.

"Leadership is aware this is all coming to a head. They'd prefer to be on the same sheet of music as DHS, of course," said a House Republican official who requested anonymity because he is not allowed to speak for members. "But they're also aware that if legislation to take FEMA out [of DHS] was sent to the floor tomorrow, it would get 400 votes."

"I don't believe re-creating a broken wheel within DHS moves us closer to realizing" Katrina's lessons, Rep. William Shuster (R-Pa.) said.

David Heyman, director of the homeland security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called the report one of the most comprehensive reviews of national preparedness since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "If we implement just half of the recommendations from the report, we will be twice as prepared as we are today," he said.

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