Flirting With Disaster

Removing FEMA from Homeland Security would only make coordination problems worse.

When the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a bill to remove the Federal Emergency Management Agency from the Homeland Security Department, its goal was to better position the agency for disaster response. Make no mistake; pulling FEMA out of DHS would be a disaster in itself. What the agency really needs is better support from Congress, better integration with other parts of DHS, and retooling to meet an evolving mission.

A reorganization would waste valuable time and energy when the agency needs to focus on making sure the nation is prepared for all types of hazards. Separating FEMA would clutter the field with yet another independent federal bureaucracy that would compete with DHS for resources, fracture the homeland security community and confuse roles and responsibilities among the two agencies. This at a time when many states are merging their homeland security and emergency management functions.

Would FEMA handle natural hazards response and DHS manage all disaster preparedness but respond only to terrorism incidents? Or would FEMA handle both preparedness and response for natural hazards and DHS do the same in cases of terrorism? What if it's unclear whether an incident is a terrorist attack, accident or natural disaster?

Many say the reason FEMA failed during Hurricane Katrina is that it was hamstrung as an arm of DHS. The Katrina response was a failure largely because New Orleans and Louisiana were woefully unprepared despite receiving tens of millions of dollars to get ready. FEMA failed as well on many fronts, key among them being its inability to recognize the dysfunctional situation in Louisiana and the need for a far more rapid and aggressive federal response.

Some proponents of moving FEMA believe it would offer a chance to relive the glory days of emergency management in the Clinton administration. But those glory days are not what they might seem. During that time, FEMA had not faced a catastrophe anywhere near the scale of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 or Hurricane Katrina. The most significant events were the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Northridge earthquake in California in 1994, Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah federal building bombing in 1995 and Hurricane Floyd in 1999. All were major events, some of which also involved criticism of FEMA's response, but the size and scope of damage-and federal resources needed-pale in comparison to larger events. No one really knows how FEMA at that time would have handled a catastrophe that devastated state and local resources.

It's true the agency faces challenges inside DHS, and Congress needs to address them. This includes developing clear lines of responsibility between Homeland Security's National Operations Center and FEMA's National Response Coordination Center; determining which tasks FEMA should manage directly or outsource to other agencies and the private sector, such as the logistics of moving supplies into a disaster zone; and creating an intergovernmental-private sector catastrophic planning framework to minimize the next Katrina-sized event.

FEMA has a critical homeland security mission and needs proper support from Congress, not another reorganization. Retooling the agency and truly integrating it into DHS is the key to success. It's time to get on with it.

Joshua D. Filler is founder and president of Filler Security Strategies Inc. in Washington and was director of state and local government coordination at the Homeland Security Department from 2003 to 2005.

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