"We want to make sure FEMA has a culture of accountability," said Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. "I think they're trying hard to get that accountability back."
FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino acknowledged the agency still has "work to do," but he said he was proud of its improvements during the last two years. Serino emphasized FEMA's reduced improper payment rate, which currently stands at 0.3 percent, down from 18 percent in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The disaster relief organization has struggled with preparedness and disaster fallout issues in the past decade, most recently seeing its resources stretched thin due to the tornadoes, floods and hurricanes that have ravaged the country this year.
Pryor, chairman of the ad hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery and Intergovernmental Affairs, which held the Thursday hearing, and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., admonished FEMA for its improper relief payments and the methods it has used to retrieve erroneously spent funds.
The senators cited an elderly Arkansas couple who was mistakenly given $25,000 for damages sustained during a 2008 flood, only to receive a notice in the mail three years later calling for a return of the money plus $10,000 in late fees and interest.
Maurice McTigue, a former member of New Zealand parliament and current vice president of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, offered suggestions for FEMA based on New Zealand's own disaster relief programs, including restricting relief payments only to individuals with bank accounts and raising the qualifications for events that call for the agency's involvement.
"In my view, a windy day is not an emergency event," McTigue said.
All parties agreed that increased deferment to local governments and stronger training programs for volunteer first responders would help lighten FEMA's load in crisis situations. "If we were really relying on local governments, we wouldn't be increasing the size of FEMA," Johnson said, adding that the agency doubled in size from 2000 to 2008.