Chertoff speech addresses FEMA’s role in DHS

DHS secretary points to value of having response, prevention and intelligence organizations together

All of these things made a big difference in minimizing and reducing the risk of a successful attack. Had we not done these things, had we shrugged our shoulders and said, boy, that was a really bad attack on September 11th, let’s empanel a grand jury and indict a few people, I’m pretty confident there would have been attacks successfully again and again and again, and I think, as we contemplate the last eight years and there’s certainly been a lot of criticism about things in hindsight that people would have done differently, I do think that you have to reflect on a surpassing achievement of this president which is keeping the country safe.

I also have to say that the president, whether you agree or disagree with every decision he made, has done so with the interests of the country at heart and in a manner that upholds what I think is the honor and dignity of the office.

But let me now turn to the core of what I want to talk about which is how we manage the kinds of crises at the Department of Homeland Security that emerge or that might emerge from time to time. Of course, a most common crisis we’ve had over the last eight years has been a natural disaster because we haven’t had a successful terrorist attack since September 11th, and this past year, as I indicated, was another year of substantial natural disaster activity, whether it was the wildfires in the Fall of 2007 in California, an unprecedented flooding in the Midwest along parts of the Mississippi River in Iowa and other places, tornadoes in the Midwest, and, of course, Hurricane Gustav and Hurricane Ike. All of these posed enormous challenges to the local populations and to the Federal Government.

In each of these cases over the last year, the point of the spear and the federal response supporting local and state government was the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, and I believe in each of these cases, it’s generally acknowledged FEMA acquitted itself very well. That’s, however, not merely a tribute to a lot of the rebuilding work that’s been done with FEMA but it had a lot to do with partnership, partnership with state and local authorities with whom we have planned and worked over the past few years, partnership with our own law enforcement personnel, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, Air Marshals from TSA and Screening Officers from TSA, all of whom have come to work to support FEMA in doing the job of providing a federal voice and a federal capability when people in states and localities are in distress.

Just to give you some examples, Customs and Border Protection provided security for the transit of life-sustaining goods in many of these disasters and also provided aerial assets that allowed us to survey the damage. TSA supported 20 FEMA commodity distribution locations in the area of Harris County, which is where Houston is, in Texas, putting 366 employees into the field, doing not their normal day job but supporting FEMA by providing hands and boots to distribute food to people in need. Our Coast Guard performed myriad land, maritime and air search and rescue missions.

So in each of the cases that FEMA was maybe the best-known example of DHS acting in support of disaster relief, FEMA was supported by all of the elements and all of the powers of the Department of Homeland Security, and I think there are three lessons that come out of this last year in terms of the way we worked.

First, when it comes to any kind of an incident, crisis incident, whether it’s a natural disaster or a manmade disaster, planning and preparation are the essential precondition of doing a good job. Gustav was a result of years of planning with the state and local authorities and the ability to make sure, even when an unexpected event occurred, that we were able to improvise because we had a sound foundation in terms of our ability to have a plan and to have trained and exercised the plan.

Second great lesson from 2008 is what I call the three Cs: cooperation, communication, and coordination, which at all levels of government are essential if we are to respond effectively to a disaster.

And finally at the federal level, I daresay that the integration of our preparedness and response functions under a single roof, the Department of Homeland Security, has been a major contributor to the ability of FEMA and all of the other agencies to get together and make sure that we were able to provide a very sound and effective response capability in, whether it be fire, water or wind, natural disasters across the country.