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Published: Tuesday, 5/2/2006

A little 'emergency' repair

HURRICANE Katrina showed just how inept the Federal Emergency Management Agency had become once it was folded into the new Department of Homeland Security under Michael Brown's leadership.

But a Senate panel that recommends scrapping FEMA and starting over with a new bureaucratic agency offers the wrong remedy for reinventing the "bumbling bureaucracy."

Simply renaming it under Homeland Security and giving the authority for direct communication with the president during a major crisis won't fix what's broken.

Neither will requiring any dramatic cuts in budget or FEMA staff to go through Congress first.

The Senate investigation into FEMA's response to Katrina reveals a stunning disconnect by the federal government to a disaster that was compounded by failures of local and state government.

But the report by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee concludes that FEMA is crippled "beyond repair" by years of poor leadership and inadequate funding. It called for a new agency, named the National Preparedness and Response Authority, to replace it.

A better approach would be to study what once worked in FEMA and try to replicate it.

Senate panel member Frank Lautenberg is right to insist that the disaster relief agency needs to be taken out of Homeland Security and restored to an independent cabinet-level agency.

"That's how it was done in the past and it worked as we hoped," said the New Jersey Democrat.

His sentiments were supported by a former regional FEMA director. John Copenhaver says "recreating another agency is simply reinventing the wheel, and potentially with the same kind of problems that have happened to FEMA over the past five years."

He suggests Congress revisit the model of an agency that did work. "Back in the late '90's, back around the year 2000, FEMA was an agency that actually got the job done," he said.

What was critical to its success, the former FEMA official adds, was structure and leadership.

Clearly it is far more advantageous to have an expert in disaster relief, like ex-FEMA director James Witt, leading the charge than a clueless political appointee like Michael Brown.

Disbanding FEMA is not the answer to improving federal disaster preparedness. Good, solid, leadership with an independent cabinet-level status is the way to turn the agency around.

Under those circumstances, FEMA worked effectively with other agencies and was able to access the president more quickly than under the huge Homeland Security umbrella.

The White House, which shared responsibility for the poor federal response to Katrina in the Senate report, has strong reservations about dismantling FEMA, especially with hurricane season just over a month away.

But the administration did indicate a willingness to work with the Senate committee to construct a stronger, more capable FEMA ready to serve when the need is greatest.

Suggestions of bureaucratic shuffling with FEMA, or whatever it's called, need to be scrapped in favor of more prudent options with proven success.



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