Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Do we need federal fast emergency response?

Is FEMA a quick responder in case of major emergencies? Or is mission one of training, long range planning, and funding recovery efforts (leaving the initial response to state and local officials)?

Following the Katrina disaster, the resignation of FEMA director Mike Brown, and the accusations of ineptitude and perhaps dishonesty on the part of the Brown, Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff, there will surely be investigations of the bungling of the disaster.

In addition to fixing blame, there should be a discussion, and a decision on another more important issue: should there be a federal capability for fast response to a natural or manmade disaster.

Since 9/11, the consensus has been that there should be such capability. Ironically, the response to 9/11 may have played a role in the weakening of FEMA.

At one time, FEMA was not a fast responding agency. They would arrange, after the fact, to provide for temporary housing and relief funding for victims. After hurricane Andrew hit Florida, FEMA was criticized for its slow response. FEMA was placed under James L. Witt, who was given cabinet status in the Clinton administration. The new goals for FEMA included the ability to respond when needed.

Things changed under George W. Bush. Bush appointed his campaign manager Joe M. Allbaugh as director of FEMA. Allbaugh complained to a congressional committee that FEMA was an “oversized entitlement program” and planned to shift responsibility and funding onto state and local governments.

After 9/11 and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA lost its cabinet status and became a part of DHS.

Certainly many emergencies can be handled by local and state authorities. However a major disaster, affecting multiple states, can overwhelm local authorities.

Should there be a federal quick response to major emergencies, particularly ones that affect small states with more limited capability?

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