Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff rolls the dice on disaster preparedness on the eve of hurricane season.
On Feb. 15, one year to the day after becoming chief of the Homeland Security Department, Michael Chertoff found himself sitting before a Senate committee to account for failures in the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans.
House Republicans had just released a 520-page report finding that Katrina response was bungled at all levels of government. Some of the harshest criticism, however, was directed at Chertoff, saying he executed his responsibilities "late, ineffectively, or not at all." Lives were lost and thousands experienced prolonged suffering due, in part, to the federal government's sluggish response, investigators concluded.
The report also found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to the catastrophe was inadequate. Former FEMA director Michael Brown resigned in September under mounting criticism of his actions and qualifications. Now critics were calling for Chertoff to resign.
Chertoff has taken the blows for the Bush administration. "I am responsible for the Department of Homeland Security, and I am accountable and accept responsibility for the performance of the entire department, the bad and the good," he told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The House report prompted public calls for an overhaul of the nation's emergency management system. Republicans and Democrats alike say FEMA should be removed from DHS and made an independent agency, which it was before the department was created in 2003.
"Confidence in FEMA and, by extension, the Department of Homeland Security, is at an all-time low," says Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Chertoff agrees that FEMA reforms are needed, but has resisted calls for an extensive overhaul. Last summer, he announced that preparedness activities would be stripped from FEMA and placed under a new Preparedness Directorate. FEMA, he said, would focus on its core mission of response and recovery to disasters.
Some lawmakers believe Chertoff is taking a huge gamble in reorganizing preparedness and response functions.
The White House released its own Katrina review Feb. 23. The 228-page report made 125 recommendations for reform but did not fault any individuals. Indeed, it supported Chertoff's vision of a Preparedness Directorate, and did not recommend removing FEMA from DHS.
FEMA began to lose its oversight of preparedness activities, such as grants to first responders, before Chertoff took over. Critics say that loss started the agency's demise. The National Emergency Management Association objected to Chertoff's reorganization last summer, arguing that it further breaks the integrated framework of preparedness, response, recovery and miti-gation in disaster management.
Chertoff's vision for preparedness and response is largely untested. His reforms went into effect in October, after Katrina struck. But the clock is ticking, as a new hurricane season begins June 1. "Four-and-a-half years after 9/11, America is still not ready for prime time," the House report stated. "This is particularly distressing because we know we remain at risk for terrorist attacks, and because the 2006 hurricane season is right around the corner."
"Whether FEMA stays in DHS or not, we have to put FEMA back together again," Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told Chertoff in February. "Preparedness responsibility is in one place and response is in another."
Chertoff thinks the nation will benefit from having all preparedness functions under one directorate. He says he realized when he took over the department that preparedness activities were disjointed. Some activities are beyond the scope of FEMA, such as law enforcement grants and infrastructure protection, he says.
He notes that the department now has its first undersecretary for preparedness, George Foresman, and a chief medical officer, Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge. And Chertoff says FEMA also benefits from being part of DHS, adding that he believes it would be a "huge mistake" to make the agency independent.
Reforms within FEMA include: upgrading information technology to track shipments and manage inventories, expanding claims management to bring up to 200,000 the number of victim registrations that can be accepted per day, improving debris removal, putting together a highly trained team of permanent employees to serve as a core workforce during catastrophes, and developing hardened communications equipment that will work during disasters.
The department also plans to deploy registration assistance trucks with laptops and communications equipment directly to areas where victims have taken shelter, enabling them to register for and receive assistance faster and more easily.
Chertoff acknowledges that some of the reforms will take time to implement. But his critics say time and their patience are running out.