Proposed Disaster-Response Plan Faulted

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Bush administration's new federal disaster-response plan drew harsh criticism yesterday from state and local officials only a day after it was unveiled, prompting fresh calls by House Democrats to make the Federal Emergency Management Agency a stand-alone Cabinet-level agency.

In one of only three House hearings held yesterday, all scheduled to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, state and local emergency managers said the new plan offers insufficient detail for guiding the actions of officials in charge of handling specific incidents and leaves unclear the chain of command, from the president to workers on the scene.

Congress passed legislation after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005 to beef up FEMA and make its director the president's principal disaster-management adviser.

But yesterday, Robert C. Bohlmann, emergency manager for York County in Maine and spokesman for the International Association of Emergency Managers, warned at the hearing about a "major disconnect" between that legislation and the new National Response Framework (NRF), which states that the secretary of homeland security is in charge of managing domestic incidents.

Testifying before a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee, Bohlmann said the framework -- streamlined to about 78 pages from its predecessor, the 427-page National Response Plan -- lacks substance.

"The draft NRF that we have reviewed appears to be more like a public relations document rather than a response plan or framework," Bohlmann said. Earlier this summer, state and local officials had complained that the Department of Homeland Security ignored the input they gave to FEMA and commandeered the drafting process.

Yesterday, FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison told the subcommittee that the new framework is a draft open for comment for 30 days. About 600 pages outlining specific emergency operations are included in about 30 annexes that will be open for comment for 60 days, he said.

"This is going to be a collaborative effort. This is a draft document. . . . If there are specifics in here that people don't feel we have, we welcome hearing them," Paulison said.

Tim Manning, director of homeland security and emergency management for New Mexico and spokesman for the National Emergency Management Association, whose members include his counterparts in the 49 other states, said he "could not object more vociferously" to the framework's concept that separate operational and strategic plans will be developed for 15 federally designated disaster scenarios.

"When you scale up to the level we're talking about, to have very duplicative plans with 30 variations will be disastrous," Manning said.

Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) said it may be time for Congress to revisit the issue of separating FEMA from the DHS. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who chaired the hearing, asked congressional investigators to review state and local officials' criticism.

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