FEMA’s fuzzy chain of command impedes its mission, observers say

The Federal Emergency Management Agency needs a clearer chain of command and more efficient partnerships with state and local governments in disaster relief situations, witnesses told a House panel on Monday.

"We need not be confined to outdated systems and approaches to disaster response and recovery," said David Maxwell, vice president of the National Emergency Management Association. "We must do a better job of leveraging all the resources available to us ... including the public and the private sector."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., chairwoman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee dealing with emergency management, emphasized the need to redefine catastrophic disaster and to clarify FEMA's responsibilities in relief and recovery, particularly in relation to state and local efforts. "We must reevaluate the role of the federal government, as well as FEMA's authority, policies and regulations that presume federal assistance is always supplemental regardless of the disaster," she said.

Some lawmakers and researchers have called the 1988 Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act -- the law that governs federal response activities -- insufficient to address catastrophic disasters with national impact, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The 2006 Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act comes closer to more narrowly defining the federal government's responsibilities, the committee said, but its scope still could be too broad to trigger the necessary federal assistance.

Lawmakers said FEMA staff is mired in red tape and unable to act effectively because of a muddled chain of command and overreliance on outdated administrative documents. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate acknowledged the need to improve coordination within the agency and with other external organizations. "One thing I want to make clear is FEMA is not the team," he said. "FEMA is part of the team…we obviously need to be a better partner within the federal family."

Fugate also said FEMA often fails to match its programs with existing state and local resources, and could do a better job using the capabilities of other federal agencies, the private sector, and state and local responders. FEMA can become involved in disaster recovery outside of Stafford Act declarations at the request of states, he said, and should be "supporting but not supplanting responsibilities that governors have" to avoid diluting its ability to respond to catastrophic disasters.

Norton expressed concern over $3.4 billion in disputed funds to Katrina-ravaged Louisiana, citing it as evidence of FEMA's functional challenges.

Other witnesses described the need to coordinate with the Housing and Urban Development Department for a better housing recovery program, continuing social services and case management, and improving citizen preparedness. Several also cited bureaucracy within the Homeland Security Department, which absorbed FEMA in 2003, as a hindrance to independent and flexible action during disasters and called on Congress to designate a specific FEMA administrator to coordinate recovery efforts.

"What is needed most in any disaster, and especially in a catastrophic event, is flexibility of action and speed in decision-making. We do not need duplication of responsibilities and confusion over the chain of command," said Russ Decker, president of the International Association of Emergency Managers.

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