Analysis & Opinions - Newsday

Cut FEMA Loose from Red Tape

| February 16, 2006

In wake of Katrina, agency needs to have independence restored

The secretary of Homeland Security faced withering questions yesterday about the conduct of his department in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. His appearance before a Senate committee was the culmination of testimony in which all pieces of the federal government got failing grades.

Secretary Michael Chertoff took it like a man, accepting responsibility and promising to fix the department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — which is part of it. If members of Congress have any sense, they won't let him near emergency response. If they really want to fix the problem, they can do it more quickly and efficiently by passing legislation restoring FEMA to its previous status as an independent agency whose director reports to the president.

Here's a small sample of what we've learned about the government's response to this disaster: FEMA denied local officials' requests for rubber rafts needed to rescue victims; it issued a press release telling first responders in neighboring states not to respond to the hurricane without being requested and lawfully dispatched by state and local authorities; it turned away trucks filled with water and refused to accept much-needed generators; it wouldn't allow food to be delivered to New Orleans by the Red Cross, and left 20,000 trailers sitting in Atlanta. Huge amounts of money have been stolen. There are still thousands of homeless people though hundreds of mobile homes sit empty in fields.

How did so many people make so many disastrous judgments? This is what happens when an agency is systematically undermined and caught up in red tape. This is what happens when the leadership of an agency is depleted and those who remain are fearful and uncertain of their own authority and of their relationship to the rest of the government.

I remain a fan of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The combination of Immigration and Customs into a coherent border entity was long overdue. Solving the problem is more than enough work for the secretary of homeland security. Don't fire Chertoff; let him focus on getting that one right.

Emergency response is too big and complex to be dealt with in the same department. It shouldn't have been there in the first place. The initial problem was conceptual. In the aftermath of 9/11, we were so taken by the importance of being able to respond to a terrorist attack that we forgot something Katrina brought home to us. In most fundamental ways, when it comes to response, a disaster is a disaster is a disaster. A careless, distraught worker high on drugs at a nuclear plant can be as deadly as a terrorist with a dirty bomb. Afterward, there are people who need medicine, food and water. Places need cleaning up.

The second problem was predictable. Independent agencies folded into enormous new departments with "new" missions are liable to experience uncertainty, losing focus. Prior to Katrina, warnings were issued by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, and by a host of state and local emergency preparedness planners that FEMA's preparedness mission was getting lost in a layer of bureaucracy.

The third problem also was predictable. If the director of FEMA continues to be buried in the Department of Homeland Security bureaucracy, we will continue to get lackluster directors like "Brownie" — former FEMA director Michael Brown, the failed head of the International Arabian Horse Association.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation to restore FEMA's independence within days of Hurricane Katrina. In the hyper-partisan world of Washington, her sponsorship will cause the White House reflexively to oppose it. But, with a group of House Republicans issuing their own devastating report on the government, perhaps some congressional Republicans will introduce their own legislation.

Let's not spend years doing everything but what is clearly called for: restoring FEMA to its original independence.

Elaine Kamarck teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She was in charge of the "reinventing government" project in the Clinton administration.

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For Academic Citation: Kamarck, Elaine.“Cut FEMA Loose from Red Tape.” Newsday, February 16, 2006.