Not long after Hurricane Katrina devastated coastal regions of Louisiana and Mississippi in 2004, questions arose about the wisdom of having folded the Federal Emergency Management Agency into the Department of Homeland Security.
Critics said the agency might function better if it were restored to a stand-alone organization with a director who had cabinet-level status.
With the change of administrations, there has been growing speculation that this wish may come to pass. The U.S. Council of the International Association of Emergency Managers is one group that has endorsed the idea.
Not so fast, said leaders of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the committee, and ranking member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, released a joint statement opposing any divorce scenario. When Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, it strengthened the agency and improved its performance during recent disasters, the statement said.
Separating the two entities would lead to the “perception that DHS deals with terrorism while FEMA is in charge of natural disasters,” the statement said. And that would end the all-hazards approach to disaster preparedness that the department has been striving to achieve.
The DHS inspector general has chimed in on the debate with a report, “FEMA: In or Out?” The IG concluded that it is too early to affect any change. The first Quadrennial Homeland Security Review is due at the end of 2009, and the question should wait until that process is completed, the report said. The first year of a presidency is a time of elevated terrorism risk, and such actions should “not be taken without very careful consideration.”
The report took a historical look at FEMA — the good times and bad — and concluded that the agency didn’t necessarily perform well when it stood alone.
“The success of an organization is often more about the organization’s leadership than its structure,” the report said. One of the most successful FEMA directors was James Lee Witt, who under President Bill Clinton, turned the agency around through his leadership rather than an outside force mandating change.
Legislation cannot make the FEMA director a cabinet-level official, the report noted. That is up to an individual president to decide, not Congress. Reforms since Katrina have given the FEMA director a “direct line” to the president. But that’s not the same as “having the president’s ear,” the report noted.
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano at a recent House Homeland Security Committee hearing was noncommittal on the subject, only offering that “if there is good leadership … where [FEMA] fits on the federal organizational chart is less of an acute issue.”