Senate Homeland Security Committee: Dissolve FEMA

A report about the response to Hurricane Katrina released this week by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs offers a scathing indictment of local, state and federal response to the disaster and culminates in the recommendation that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) be dissolved in favor of a larger, more powerful National Protection and Response Authority.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), a ranking member of the committee, said the Katrina Report should be a primer for future disasters.

Calling Katrina the "first disaster that tested all levels of our government since September 11th," Lieberman added, "Clearly, all levels of our government failed that test."

The committee established four overarching causes for government's widespread failures before and after Katrina:

  • Government officials at all levels – federal, state and local – neglected their duties to prepare for a forewarned catastrophe. "We've called our report, 'A Nation Still Unprepared,' noted Lieberman. "In this case, we could say: Hurricane Katrina, a nation forewarned and still unprepared."
  • Government officials at all levels failed to realize that Katrina was a catastrophe, as it took shape and hit - not a conventional hurricane.
  • Government officials did little or actually did wrong, made poor decisions in the days before landfall, which inevitably doomed the post-landfall response.
  • The absence of effective leadership at all levels of government foreclosed the possibility of overcoming the previous lack of preparedness. "These failures of leadership and government cost lives and multiplied the anguish of the storm's survivors," said Lieberman.

Despite the warnings, the federal government, the state of Louisiana and the city of New Orleans failed to prepare for and respond to the predicted flooding that trapped tens of thousands of New Orleans residents.

"This lack of preparation was a gross dereliction of duty on the part of nearly all the agencies responsible for ensuring the safety of the people of the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans in particular," said Lieberman.

Lieberman pointed out that then-FEMA Director Michael Brown claimed to understand Katrina's danger the weekend before landfall, but added, "his leadership did not reflect it. In fact, his leadership simply failed to rise to the challenge of Katrina or the mandate and responsibility that his office gave him."

Brown, Lieberman pointed out, was presiding over an agency weakened by a 15 percent vacancy rate for over a year and senior political management largely without emergency management experience.

Lieberman added that, "Sometimes, an organization, private or public, becomes so disreputable, beyond repair, that you need to dissolve it. And that is the conclusion that we've come to on FEMA. It is a sick organization and it has totally lost the confidence of the people of America, who it was created to protect in a time of crisis."

The committee is recommending that FEMA be dissolved and has proposed creating the National Preparedness and Response Agency. It will be a distinct entity within the Department of Homeland Security, reporting in time of crisis to the president.

In New Orleans on April 27 to visit damaged homes and see the reconstruction efforts going on in that city, President George W. Bush met with Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco while in New Orleans.

"One of the things that we're working on is to make sure that we've learned the lessons from Katrina," said Bush, "we've learned lessons at the federal level and state level and the local level. And we're now working closely together in preparation of the upcoming hurricane season."

He noted that DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff was in Louisiana working with the Gov. Blanco to ensure communications are clear, equipment will be pre-positioned and that the communications system, which failed during Katrina, will be up and running should there be another catastrophic storm.

"All of us in positions of responsibility appreciate those who are working to help us understand how to do our jobs better," said Bush."And we pray there is no hurricane this coming year, but we are working together to make sure that if there is one the response will be as efficient as possible."

On April 26, the Department of Homeland Security announced the predesignation of five teams that will coordinate the federal government's role in support of state and local governments in preparing for, and responding to, major natural disasters this storm season. In total, 27 federal officials have been appointed, each with unique expertise and considerable experience.

"Designating these teams now will give state and local officials a chance to plan, train, and exercise with their federal counterparts before a disaster strikes," said Chertoff. "It is imperative that officials at all levels of government, and able bodied citizens alike, understand emergency management roles and individual responsibilities going into this storm season."

There was no comment from either Chertoff or the White House on the Senate recommendation to dissolve FEMA.

Read the Executive summary of "Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared" here.

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