Witnesses back efforts to make FEMA an independent agency

Emergency management experts Thursday said they agree with a push by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee leaders to make the Federal Emergency Management Agency independent, citing numerous shortcomings in its ability to operate effectively.

During a hearing on FEMA, the panel largely served to underscore Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar's efforts to remove FEMA from the Homeland Security Department. Oberstar introduced a bill in February that would make FEMA an independent, Cabinet-level agency reporting directly to the president. Oberstar noted that he had fought efforts by the Bush administration to include FEMA in Homeland Security when the department was created in 2002. Oberstar said at the hearing that he warned at the time that the department would "move people out of FEMA, money out of FEMA."

"It is unfortunate that what we predicted came true," said Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member John Mica, who has co-sponsored Oberstar's bill. Mica and the witnesses highlighted the well-publicized problems FEMA had in responding to 2005's hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Witnesses noted that resources and staff have been shifted out of FEMA and into other DHS functions and said the current structure stifles FEMA's decision-making by requiring input from DHS officials. Larry Larson of the Association of State Floodplain Managers noted that the agency's focus has shifted to terrorism preparation and away from hazard mitigation. Despite these problems, lawmakers and some witnesses praised President Obama's pick to head FEMA, Craig Fugate, who most recently headed Florida's disaster relief agency. He was confirmed this week to his post.

While supportive of Oberstar's bill, emergency management consultant Jerome Hauer said he disagreed with the lawmaker's call to remove the terrorism response function from FEMA, saying "emergency management is emergency management" whether it's natural or man-made. He said a transition group would need to be put in place to support FEMA as it makes the transition back to an independent agency or the effort will fail.

Despite the well-publicized problems with FEMA, Oberstar and others noted that they face an uphill battle to remove FEMA from DHS. While FEMA officials were not at the hearing, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said this week that the Obama administration believes FEMA should remain part of the department. Still, Oberstar said his committee would move his legislation this year.

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