Should FEMA Be Part of DHS or Not?

Plus, a review of presidential candidates' positions on emergency response


Aug. 26--They were told not to do it.

In clear and precise language, members of Congress were warned by policy experts not to merge the Federal Emergency Management Agency into a newly created Department of Homeland Security.

FEMA would be swallowed up by the sprawling new agency, the experts warned, and it would not respond effectively to a major natural disaster.

Congress, including most of those now running for president, did not heed those warnings. Two years ago this month, Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast, overwhelmed emergency responders and proved the prescience of those ignored experts.

South Carolina, with its large, economically crucial coastline, is threatened more by hurricanes than by terrorism, which Homeland Security was created to combat. But those running for president have different opinions on whether FEMA should be made a stand-alone agency again and what else should be done to enhance the country's ability to help states cope with natural disasters.

Ron Obsorne, director of the S.C. Emergency Management Division, is staying out of that debate. He said he merely wants results from FEMA.

"My preference is to have them funded adequately and to have them capable of helping states when they call for that help," Osborne said.

As this hurricane season progresses, FEMA regularly meets with state officials to coordinate disaster plans.

A FEMA official was in South Carolina last week, for example, clarifying with Osborne which agency would do what if disaster struck.

"What we want to do is have all of our staffs talking," Osborne said. "We wouldn't want to send too much water to one area and then turn around and need more in another area. They listen to what we need, and we hear what they can do to help."

After Katrina, FEMA was roundly criticized for not helping enough.

FEMA was operating then under the umbrella of Homeland Security, but the post-Katrina criticisms were not the first for the disaster agency. They weren't the angriest, either.

Then-U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., excoriated FEMA as "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever known" after many in the Palmetto State came to believe the agency was slow to respond to Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Three years later, after Hurricane Andrew tore across south Florida, Kate Hale, an emergency management official in the Miami area, tearfully asked: "Where in the hell is the cavalry?"

FEMA won more positive reviews after helping states cope with a series of storms in the decade after Andrew.

Then came Katrina.

RETHINKING FEMA AS PART OF HOMELAND SECURITY

Each major presidential candidate who was a member of Congress in 2002, when the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly voted to create a department of Homeland Security, voted in favor of having FEMA be a part of the new department.

They did so despite words of caution from former FEMA director James Lee Witt, who said the new department should be created slowly. Witt told House members that FEMA's structures for dealing with disasters "were not broken and didn't need fixing."

In prepared testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., questioned the pairing of FEMA and Homeland Security.

Describing FEMA, Daalder said: "Much of its day-to-day responsibility has nothing to do with terrorism. ... No one proposes to merge the diplomatic functions of the State Department with the military functions of the Pentagon, even though both have a role in national security policy -- including in countering terrorism. Might it not be better, then, to leave FEMA be, and coordinate its counter-terrorism role as part of a well-functioning interagency process?"

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