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Senate report: Dismantle FEMA
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — Hurricane Katrina exposed flaws in the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security that are "too substantial to mend," and FEMA should be dismantled and rebuilt inside the troubled department, according to the final report by Senate investigators.
The report, to be released to key senators today and to the public next week, makes 86 recommendations that would undo major changes made when President Bush and Congress launched the department in 2003, and would reverse parts of a reorganization ordered by Secretary Michael Chertoff last summer. It stops short of restoring FEMA to independent, Cabinet-level status, as many in Congress and former agency directors want, but would promote its chief to confer directly with the president in a crisis, according to a summary released to news organizations.
The 800-plus-page report, "Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared," incorporates many findings by earlier House and White House investigations but goes further in recommending structural changes in how all levels of government — especially the Homeland Security Department — respond to catastrophes.
It would replace FEMA with a new National Preparedness and Response Authority whose head would report to the homeland security secretary but serve as the president's top adviser for national emergency management, akin to the military role served by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It would reunify disaster preparedness and response activities that Chertoff decoupled. It also envisions a stronger national preparedness system with regional coordinators, a larger role for the National Guard and the Defense Department and more money for training, planning and exercises.
"We have concluded that FEMA is in shambles and beyond repair, and that it should be abolished," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in a written statement released by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which she chairs. The committee held 22 hearings, interviewed more than 320 people and reviewed more than 838,000 pages of documents.
The report by the 16-member panel formally kicks off a frenzied effort by Congress to make fixes before the June 1 start of hurricane season.
By framing the debate around FEMA's fate, the report defers to Bush's request not to carve it out of the Homeland Security Department even as it faults his administration for failing to fund and coordinate disaster readiness efforts after the Sept. 11 , 2001, attacks, and for emphasizing terrorism at the expense of natural disaster preparedness. The administration was also faulted for bungling the storm response by neglecting warnings, failing to grasp Katrina's destructiveness and doing too little or taking the wrong steps before the Aug. 29 landfall.
The Senate report said making FEMA independent would "do nothing to solve the key problems that Katrina has revealed, including a lack of resources and weak and ineffective leadership," and could lead to wasteful duplication.
The Senate report is the only bipartisan national inquiry into the storm, which killed 1,330 people, displaced 1 million families, swamped 80 percent of New Orleans and led to a $100 billion federal response. House Democrats boycotted their chamber's effort, fearing a partisan whitewash.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company