Should FEMA Be Part of DHS or Not?

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?"

After Katrina laid waste to the Gulf Coast and after widespread news reports showed desperate, angry victims pleading for help, FEMA Director Michael Brown told furious members of Congress that he and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff clashed as they sought to respond to the crisis. Brown said money he had requested for his agency was reduced by Homeland Security, leaving FEMA less able to cope with the disaster.

Since then, however, some of those who voted to move FEMA into Homeland Security have had a change of heart.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., wrote legislation that would restore FEMA to independent status.

"As recent events have shown, FEMA should not have been moved from an independent, Cabinet-level agency to a sub-agency of DHS," Clinton wrote in a letter to a pair of her Senate colleagues. "What we have learned is that FEMA's mission to focus on preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation of disasters was lost in the growing and expansive bureaucratic structure of the newly formed DHS."

Fellow Democratic senators and presidential candidates Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Barack Obama of Illinois agreed.

But Clinton's legislation was rejected in the Senate.

Presidential candidates Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat, Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, and John McCain, an Arizona Republican, were among the senators to vote against Clinton's legislation. (Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, was not a member of the Senate during that vote.)

'JUST MOVING THE BOXES AROUND'

Reasons for their opposition varied.

"Sen. Biden does not support moving FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security because he believes that moving the agency again would disrupt preparedness and coordination," the senator's presidential campaign said in a statement e-mailed to The State.

McCain said moving FEMA won't make it more effective.

"That's just moving the boxes around," he said recently. "I don't think it's a matter of where it is. It's a question of: 'How are you going to take care of people?' "

In the two years after Katrina, the storm has come to symbolize different things to different candidates.

Some see the storm as proof of the limits of government.

McCain, for example, said he wants to see the private sector -- specifically businesses that rely on getting things done quickly -- more involved in getting supplies to stricken communities.

Other candidates see the storm as proof of a government that is capable but too often uncaring.

Edwards announced his current run for the presidency amid the rubble of the Lower Ninth Ward, a New Orleans neighborhood heavily damaged by Katrina.

"This is a place," Edwards told reporters that day, "where presidential leadership would have been critical."

Reach Senior Writer Wayne Washington at (803) 771-8385.

WHERE THE CANDIDATES STAND

A sampling of how the major presidential candidates -- those registering in S.C. polls --responded to Hurricane Katrina and what they say they would do to improve the nation's emergency preparedness.

Republicans

U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas: Voted to move the Federal Emergency Management Agency into the newly formed Department of Homeland Security. Opposed efforts to make FEMA a stand-alone agency again after it was criticized for responding poorly to Katrina. Pushed for FEMA to cover more costs after a devastating tornado struck in Kansas.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani: Praised for his response to Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York. However, questions have been raised about the city's preparedness for a major emergency. Giuliani called for a study of FEMA's poor response to Katrina and for the Small Business Administration to make it easier for storm victims to get help. Supported former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik's nomination to be secretary of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA. Kerik withdrew his nomination and subsequently pleaded guilty to ethics violations.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee: Directed Arkansas to help thousands of Katrina victims. Said he would remove FEMA from Homeland Security and have the FEMA director report to him. FEMA's leader would have "sterling credentials," including hands-on experience in dealing with disasters. Calls Homeland Security "unwieldy and inefficient" and said he would reassess the agency's mission and tighten its focus.

U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona: Voted to merge FEMA into Homeland Security. Opposed efforts to make FEMA a stand-alone agency after it was criticized for poorly responding to Katrina. Argues moving FEMA out of Homeland Security will not automatically improve the nation's emergency preparedness. Wants the government to tap the expertise of private companies to respond more quickly after natural disasters. Failed in a bid to establish an independent agency that would suggest priorities for the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which constructs and maintains flood-control projects.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: Criticized the Bush administration for its response to Katrina. Called for Homeland Security to be streamlined. Said he would have appointed someone to oversee federal spending on recovery. Would not answer directly when asked if FEMA should be moved out of Homeland Security. Said improving FEMA is more important than determining where it fits on an organizational chart.

Democrats

U.S. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware: Voted to merge FEMA into Homeland Security. Opposed efforts to make FEMA a stand-alone agency after it was criticized for poorly responding to Katrina. Said moving FEMA would be disruptive and hinder preparedness. Supports having the FEMA director report to the president before, during and after a natural disaster. Has proposed extra spending for more communications equipment for first responders.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York: Voted to merge FEMA into Homeland Security. Led the failed effort to make FEMA a stand-alone agency after it was criticized for poorly responding to Katrina. Supports the appointment of someone to oversee Katrina recovery efforts. Called for waiving the federal rule requiring local money be used to match a percentage of federal funding for infrastructure improvements. Wants to create a Gulf Coast Corps to rebuild and provide skilled professionals to the region devastated by Katrina. Backs a review of the U.S. Corps of Engineers' progress in rebuilding New Orleans' pump and levee system.

U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut: Voted to merge FEMA into Homeland Security. Backed the failed efforts to make FEMA a stand-alone agency after it was criticized for poorly responding to Katrina. Co-sponsored legislation that made it easier for affordable housing to be rebuilt in areas hit by Katrina.

Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina: Voted to merge FEMA into Homeland Security. Edwards was no longer in the Senate when that body voted to make FEMA an independent agency. Announced his second run for the presidency in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, which was damaged extensively during Katrina. Supports building more affordable housing in damaged areas. Wants to create a wage and labor taskforce to look into worker abuse as infrastructure is rebuilt. Backs the construction of stronger levees and the restoration of coastal wetlands as a barrier against storm surge. Proposed hiring 50,000 Gulf Coast residents to fill "stepping stone" jobs to help rebuild the region.

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois: Voted to merge FEMA into Homeland Security. Supported failed effort to make FEMA a stand-alone agency after it was criticized for poorly responding to Katrina. Led successful effort to require states to plan for evacuating special-needs residents. Also led push for the establishment of a phone system that allows displaced residents to connect with relatives.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson: Has argued states should not be required to match a percentage of federal reconstruction spending after a natural disaster. Also backs forgiving reconstruction loans and federal help to offset tax losses in communities hit by natural disasters. Wants FEMA to be a stand-alone agency again.

Loading