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Published: Tuesday, 9/20/2005

Rebuilding FEMA

NOW that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has a qualified administrator and the President has acknowledged that the days after Katrina were not government's finest hour, the major rebuilding job can begin, and we're not talking just along the hurricane-shattered Gulf Coast.

The replacement of Michael D. Brown, a Bush Administration crony, with R. David Paulison, a career fire chief from Florida with demonstrated disaster-response experience, is a good first step in righting the agency. But the hard part will be reconstituting FEMA as the can-do organization it was five years ago.

In that short span, the administration reshaped FEMA from the high-caliber, professionally run agency that it was under Bill Clinton into what Washington insiders call a "turkey farm," a dumping ground for political appointees without any particular qualifications.

Mr. Brown, who was pushed out in the furor over his somnambulant handling of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, was a perfect example of a political crony. Mr. Paulison, Homeland Security's director of preparedness and FEMA's highest-ranking career administrator, should have had the top job in the first place.

As fire chief for Miami-Dade County, Mr. Paulison earned his stripes responding to Hurricane Andrew, which devastated south Florida in 1992, and the crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Everglades in 1996. Presumably, his hands-on experience will serve the agency well as it struggles to regain its bearings.

Rebuilding FEMA will not be easy. Many career professionals were driven out or left as the agency was submerged in the giant bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security and its target was shifted from preparation for natural disasters to terrorism.

As it turned out, FEMA's sublimation in the bureaucracy slowed relief efforts at least as much as Mr. Brown's ineptitude. Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary, failed to heed a government plan and did not name Mr. Brown as the principal federal official in charge of Katrina relief until 36 hours after the storm passed New Orleans.

Maybe Mr. Chertoff, too, should walk the plank.

Even before the Katrina fiasco, FEMA had acquired an unmistakable partisan stench as it handed out more than $30 million in bogus storm-relief aid in Florida, much of it just before the 2004 presidential election. Mr. Paulison reportedly was not involved in those shenanigans.

If FEMA is to regain its professionalism and convince the American people it can be counted on in a disaster, it must be wiped clean of political cronyism. And the time to start is now, before another big storm blows into town.

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