Moving FEMA out of Homeland Security could pose risks

FEMA staff plan housing during Hurricane Ike. FEMA staff plan housing during Hurricane Ike. FEMA photo

Ever since the Federal Emergency Management Agency was absorbed into the Homeland Security Department after its creation in 2003, bureaucrats and elected officials have debated the merits of that decision. After weighing the arguments for and against making FEMA a stand-alone agency again, the department's inspector general found such a reorganization could have significant negative repercussions.

"Removing FEMA from DHS at this point would cause considerable upheaval, to both FEMA and the department," IG Richard Skinner wrote in a report released Tuesday.

FEMA benefits from the wealth of resources and capabilities inherent in Homeland Security, such as search and rescue, communications, law enforcement, intelligence, infrastructure protection, and the ability to surge personnel from other DHS agencies during emergencies, the report concluded.

FEMA's response to hurricanes Gustav and Ike last fall illustrated the point: Customs and Border Protection provided security and aerial surveys of the damaged regions; the Transportation Security Administration supported 20 commodity distribution locations with 366 employees; and the Coast Guard performed search-and-rescue missions.

The IG noted in the three years before the department was established, FEMA and the Coast Guard conducted joint exercises 13 times; in the three years after DHS was created, the agencies held 59 such exercises.

The IG also reported that FEMA administers almost all Homeland Security grants, including those focused on natural hazards as well as those centered on terrorism. "Pulling FEMA out of DHS would almost certainly disrupt the grants function in the short term, and it could result in once again separating out 'emergency management' grants from 'terrorism' grants, which we know from experience leads to inefficiency, duplication and waste," the report said.

Advocates of returning FEMA to stand-alone status often have compared the agency's failures in responding to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to its success under James Lee Witt, the former director of emergency services in Arkansas, and FEMA administrator during the Clinton years, before the agency was absorbed into DHS.

The agency Witt inherited in 1993 was widely perceived to be an incompetent, rule-bound bureaucracy whose leaders owed more to political connections than to any expertise in emergency management. Witt was not only an experienced emergency manager who understood FEMA's shortcomings firsthand, but a close friend of Clinton's whose access to the president -- and the influence such access conveys -- was guaranteed.

The IG credited Witt for revitalizing FEMA, but noted that his success stemmed more from his own leadership abilities and his personal relationship with the president than from FEMA's status as a stand-alone agency. "FEMA often performed poorly even when it was an independent agency," the report said.

Rich Cooper, who served as business liaison director at Homeland Security from 2003 to 2006, said Witt deserves enormous credit for his accomplishments at FEMA, but pointed out the agency never had to deal with anything comparable to Katrina under Witt. Since Katrina, under the leadership of David Paulison, its most recent administrator whose career also was in emergency management, FEMA developed a much more robust planning capability upon which the Obama administration can build, said Cooper, who is now a partner at Catalyst Partners, a public affairs and lobbying firm in Washington.

FEMA's mission is so intertwined with that of other Homeland Security agencies that taking it out of the department would be a big mistake, Cooper said. "You have to recognize that FEMA has a lot more resources at its disposal today" than it had in the past, he said.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said support for keeping FEMA within Homeland Security is growing. "When Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act in 2006, we built a new, stronger FEMA, giving it a renewed mission and greater stature and resources, which have significantly contributed to FEMA's success in responding to recent disasters," he said.

"Moving it out now would weaken FEMA, since the agency would no longer have the same ready access to the resources and expertise of the rest of DHS, and it would be more difficult to coordinate in a disaster," Lieberman said.

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