DHS to Unveil New Disaster Response Plan

President Bush, then-FEMA Director Michael D. Brown and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, front second from right, toured Gulf Coast communities battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
President Bush, then-FEMA Director Michael D. Brown and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, front second from right, toured Gulf Coast communities battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (Associated Press)

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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Bush administration is set to announce an overhaul of the nation's emergency response blueprint Tuesday, streamlining a chain of command that failed after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, sources familiar with the plan said yesterday.

After years of aggressive lobbying by unhappy state governments, the administration chose to restore FEMA's power to coordinate federal disaster operations. That power was undermined in the administration's previous plan -- used just once, after Katrina -- when the secretary of homeland security appointed his own officer to oversee disaster response.

Under the new plan, the head of FEMA will appoint the top coordinating officer, clarifying responsibility and, according to the states, ending confusion that caused critical delays. Congress ordered that change to the plan last year.

State leaders, who condemned an early draft of the 90-page plan as lacking substance and ignoring their input, praised the administration this week for listening to their complaints and reestablishing a federal-state hierarchy that predated the Sept 11, 2001, attacks and DHS's formation in 2003.

"They changed. It came around 180 degrees," 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. "The country will have a much better response with this plan than we had with the previous plan," which was finished just nine months before Katrina struck.

Michael D. Brown, who was vilified for many of the Katrina errors after being named by DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff as his on-the-ground commander during that effort, claimed a degree of vindication for his former agency.

"They've finally woken up and gone back to, in essence, the old [plan] that said who's on first, which is what we needed," Brown said. "What's most important is for states and locals to know who's in charge. If they're happy with it, that means they're going back to the earlier FEMA and that's good news."

Like Brown, many in Congress have long faulted the Department of Homeland Security for undermining FEMA's authority after they merged in 2003. A source familiar with the process said the turning point coincided with the October departure of former DHS deputy secretary Michael P. Jackson, who had pushed unsuccessfully to solidify the department's control over disaster operations.

Chertoff and FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison have scheduled a news conference for 2 p.m. Tuesday to announce the new framework. Agency spokesmen declined to comment publicly beforehand. Copies were circulated in advance to congressional, state and other partners, and one was obtained by The Washington Post.

A FEMA official asked by the agency's media office to discuss the document denied that it was reviving an older command structure, but said that it was more clearly delineating the role and importance of states and clarifying the core question of who is in charge. "It's not a step backward," the official said. "That said, if people are comfortable with it and are willing to advocate on its behalf -- and more importantly will take it and use it -- they can say what they want and I'm happy about it."

The national framework is supposed to guide how federal, state and local governments, along with private and nonprofit groups, respond during disasters. The previous version, developed by officials in Washington at the end of 2004, was widely depicted as an impenetrable 427-page document that deemphasized responding to natural disasters in favor of countering terrorism.

The new 90-page plan is meant to present a simpler guide to government and private sector executives, saving the details for about 30 or more annexes totaling hundreds of pages that are to be published online. About 23 of these annexes, intended as guides for state and local managers, field operators and trainers, are completed.

Special guides to address scenarios such as an oil spill or nuclear plant disaster are still being written, the official said.

The plan makes clear that the homeland security secretary will remain the president's "principal federal official for domestic incident management." But it limits his ability to designate that role only in extraordinary cases, leaving operational decisions about deploying federal assets to the FEMA administrator's choice in most disasters, Manning said.

Another post-Katrina change eliminates a requirement that the homeland security secretary must declare an Incident of National Significance to trigger a more aggressive response -- a step that was delayed during the 2005 storm -- and instead spells out different standing plans for dealing with natural catastrophes and national security crises, the FEMA official said.

The DHS shift comes as Congress is once again considering whether to make FEMA an independent agency. In a statement, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) called the much-delayed plan a "solid building block toward a more secure and better prepared America," adding: "This framework shows how a properly integrated FEMA is strengthened by its placement in the Department of Homeland Security."

George W. Foresman, a former DHS undersecretary for preparedness, said the framework simplifies federal policies and integrates planning for man-made and natural disasters. But he said it remains unclear when the federal government can force action on states, who will be in charge when a disaster is still on the horizon and how officials will be trained to follow the new rules.

The new framework, he said, "is not the end state. It is very much the starting line."


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