FEMA to Take Lead Role in Coordinating Disaster Aid

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will replace the American Red Cross as the agency in charge of coordinating the provision of shelter, food and first aid to victims in disasters under an agreement disclosed by a Senate panel yesterday.

The change in the government's emergency plans, formalized in letters between FEMA and Red Cross leaders Feb. 21, follows criticism of the way they cooperated after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and a new law that bolsters FEMA's role in providing emergency housing, human services, case management and financial help.

The FEMA takeover will be administrative and will not affect the Red Cross's traditional direct relief operations, which include opening shelters, providing food and raising money, which totaled more than $2 billion after Katrina, spokeswoman Laura Howe said.

The Government Accountability Office reported in June that FEMA and the Red Cross had made little progress in easing conflicts coordinating "mass care" for millions of 2005 storm victims. FEMA workers chafed at Red Cross policies that rotated staffers and volunteers every two to three weeks, for example, while Red Cross officials criticized FEMA's inability to track and respond to its requests for help.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate homeland security panel, which released the report, said, "We need to know if FEMA is prepared to take a larger role for saving lives and easing human suffering" and whether detailed operational plans exist.

The Red Cross had been the only private organization assigned a lead role under the government's National Response Plan, now being redrafted, and it had become clear the group could not carry out newly envisioned duties, said David Garrett, FEMA's acting director of recovery.

"The lead for mass care must be able to commit and direct federal resources . . . actions which the Red Cross, as a nongovernmental organization, does not have the legal authority to do," Garrett wrote Joseph C. Becker, American Red Cross senior vice president for preparedness and response. Putting FEMA in charge "will ensure a unified command structure."

Becker noted that the Red Cross will continue to support U.S. agencies, providing blood, mental health counseling and other needs.

FEMA notified Congress earlier this week that the new version of the national response plan may not be completed by a June 1 deadline.

Staff writer John Solomon contributed to this report.

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