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Panel Says to Scrap FEMA

A Senate probe urges that the agency be dismantled and then rebuilt to correct shortcomings revealed by its Katrina response.

April 27, 2006|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Federal Emergency Management Agency should be dismantled and restructured to deal with the problems exposed by its response to Hurricane Katrina, Senate investigators have determined after a seven-month inquiry.

"We have concluded that FEMA is in shambles and beyond repair and that it should be abolished," Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who heads the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Wednesday night in a statement.

Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the committee's ranking Democrat, faulted President Bush as well, for lack of action during the crisis and for not cooperating with the committee investigation.

"For Hurricane Katrina, the president failed to provide critical leadership when it was most needed, and that contributed to a grossly ineffective federal response," he said in a statement.

The committee's report, scheduled for release to senators today and to the public next week, recommends replacing FEMA with a new National Preparedness and Response Authority, which would remain in the Department of Homeland Security. Its director would have direct access to the president during disasters, much as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff provides information and advice during a military crisis.

FEMA was independent -- and highly regarded -- until March 2003, after the Department of Homeland Security was created because of the Sept. 11 attacks. Designed to put all domestic security programs under a single umbrella, the new department combined 22 agencies employing more than 170,000 people.

Although the Senate inquiry calls for a restructuring of disaster operations, it concludes that keeping such a relief agency within Homeland Security is necessary because it "allows the new organization to take full advantage of the substantial range of resources DHS has at its disposal," including the Coast Guard and national communications systems.

Restoring FEMA to its independent role -- as many critics of the Katrina response have advocated -- "would do nothing to solve the key problems that Katrina has revealed, including a lack of resources and weak and ineffective leadership," the committee found.

Several House members -- including Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee -- have called for FEMA to stand alone. Asked about their proposal, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters Wednesday: "We support [FEMA] being where it is."

Department of Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke also rejected the idea of separation. "It's time to stop playing around with the organizational charts and to start focusing on government, at all levels, that are preparing for this storm season," he said Wednesday night.

The Senate committee is the only bipartisan panel to investigate the failure of the government response to Hurricane Katrina, which hit Aug. 29. The storm killed more than 1,300 people along the Gulf Coast, left hundreds of thousands homeless, and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The committee conducted 22 hearings, interviewed more than 300 people involved in the hurricane response and reviewed about 1 million pages of files.

Fearing that it would be a whitewash, Democrats boycotted a similar House committee inquiry, though two Louisiana Democratic congressmen participated informally and the results were generally agreed to be thorough and nonpartisan. The White House conducted its own investigation, which placed much of the blame for the response on state officials.

The release of the Senate committee's 800-page report comes as Bush travels to Louisiana and Mississippi today and as agencies grapple with preparations for the start of hurricane season, June 1.

The committee has 86 recommendations to fix the fissures exposed by the Katrina response. The recommendations, obtained by The Times, include:

* Creating regional strike teams and operations to better coordinate with federal agencies.

* Building "a true, government-wide operations center" to provide up-to-date information.

* Fully funding the emergency agency "commensurate with the significance of its mission."

* Developing mass evacuation plans.

Among its 24 findings, the Senate report accuses the Bush administration of focusing on terrorism at the expense of disaster preparedness and of failing to adequately fund disaster response plans after the terrorist attacks.

The committee lays blame in all directions -- faulting the design and construction of New Orleans' levees as well as the failure of officials at all levels, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and then-FEMA director Michael D. Brown, to grasp the severity of the storm.

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