Should FEMA Be Part of DHS or Not?

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


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.