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Published: Tuesday, 10/25/2005

Eye of the storm

HOMELAND Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is willing to accept responsibility for the federal government's inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina. Now all he has to do is make good on his promise to "re-engineer" the Federal Emergency Management Agency to do a better job.

It will not be an easy chore, but Mr. Chertoff thankfully has abandoned the dubious claim by Michael D. Brown, the former FEMA director, that the government's stumbling approach to Katrina relief was the fault of confusion among state and local officials along the Gulf Coast.

"There are a lot of things that didn't work well with the response," the Homeland Security chief told a special House investigatory committee. "We need to re-engineer FEMA."

If that is the case, revamping the agency will have to be done on the fly, at least initially. The National Hurricane Center already has run out of storm names in English, and the seemingly unending 2005 hurricane season isn't over.

One of the first steps should be to rid FEMA of unqualified political appointees like Mr. Brown - he resigned post-Katrina rather than be fired - and hire professionals with real expertise in emergency planning. In addition, the agency would at least have a chance to function more efficiently if it were removed from the gigantic Homeland Security bureaucratic umbrella and once again made independent.

To their credit, members of the committee investigating the storm response did not show any particular deference to Mr. Chertoff, who ultimately is responsible for disaster response. There were pointed comments about his failure to officially designate Mr. Brown as the principal federal official in charge of Katrina relief until a day after the storm hit.

Having started from behind, FEMA has a lot of catching up to do. Evacuation shelters still hold some 20,000 people, while 125,000 remain in hotels. The agency's lack of a large-scale plan for housing storm refugees is glaringly obvious, and its ability to engage in fair, cost-effective contracts for cleanup efforts remains weak.

In addition, Congress is rebelling at President Bush's promise that the federal government will pay most of the bill for reconstruction.

If commitment isn't reached soon on a long-run plan for dealing with disasters as formidable as Katrina, the policy arguments in Washington will still be going hot and heavy when the 2006 hurricane season ramps up next year.



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