Shuffling bureaucracy at FEMA will accomplish little
A lengthy U.S. Senate committee inquiry has concluded that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was inadequately prepared to deal with and respond to Hurricane Katrina.
The final report by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, given to lawmakers Thursday, recommends 86 changes to avoid a repeat of the bumbling response to the disaster that killed more than 1,300 people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, left hundreds of thousands homeless and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage.
The report concludes FEMA is crippled beyond repair due to years of poor leadership and inadequate funding. It calls for creation of a new agency, the National Preparedness and Response Authority.
But another bureaucratic reshuffling is not the solution to FEMA's woes.
As recently as a decade ago, many considered FEMA one of the federal government's most efficient and effective agencies. Its organizational chart was light at the federal level and the agency relied heavily on planning and action by state and local employees familiar with affected areas. Response to disasters such as floods, tornadoes and fires was usually swift and efficient.
The federal government provided funding and training for local FEMA directors but, for the most part, local officials and first-responders familiar with their areas' needs performed planning, preparedness and mitigation.
But the newly created Department of Homeland Security absorbed FEMA in 2003, and the result was itself a disaster.
Certainly, Katrina was an unprecedented natural disaster that stretched FEMA and Homeland Security beyond their breaking points. But the bungling in preparedness and the delays in providing relief in its aftermath are inexcusable. The ineffective federal bureaucracy is directly responsible for the failure.
Yes, FEMA is broken. It is itself a disaster. But folding the agency into another bureaucracy is not the fix.
The government should restore FEMA to an independent Cabinet-level agency with a federal director, but return emphasis to state and local coordinators and first-responders with intimate familiarity with the needs and vulnerabilities of their respective areas.
Simply changing the organizational chart at the federal level is not a fix. It is change solely for the sake of politicians who want to look like they are part of the solution.