WASHINGTON (CN) – FEMA administrator Craig Fugate sidestepped questions in Congress Monday over whether the federal disaster agency needed a wholesale shakeup in the wake of epic-scale ineptitude in its reaction to Hurricane Katrina. “Gotta know who’s in charge. That is one thing Katrina told us to clean up,” said District of Columbia Democratic Chair Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Questions over government redundancy and inadequate coordination between local, state, and federal government came frequently from members of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management.
“We are going to be faced with catastrophes in the future,” Iowa Democrat David Loebsack said. “We need to be better prepared, there’s no doubt about it.”
The response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, the most costly natural disaster in American history, is widely viewed as a largely uncoordinated effort with confusion over the role of local, state, and federal governments.
Recently, the Homeland Security Department criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s handling of formaldehyde-contaminated trailers used to house victims of the hurricane.
“We still have about 2,400 folks in temporary housing units,” Fugate said.
In order to deal with future disasters, the question is being posed, should authority be restructured?
“The Stafford Act and our nation’s emergency management system are grounded in our federal system of government that recognizes that the primary responsibility to address disasters and emergencies resides with states and communities,” she said, “not the federal government.”
The act, adopted in 1988, was designed to organize the government in its response to catastrophes, but might have been inadequate for a disaster as large as Hurricane Katrina. “We must re-evaluate the role of the federal government, as well as FEMA’s authority, policies, and regulations that presume federal assistance is always supplemental,” Norton said.
Fugate, who has served as the administrator for only two months, replied that the change in authority relies on how the government should respond. He said that if people want a single government agency to respond to the disasters, then there would need to be some new authorities for the government, and within the government. But he appeared to promote a more diverse group of responders, and said new authority would not have to be sought if more local governments play a role.
“FEMA is not the team, FEMA is part of the team,” Fugate said, and mentioned local, state, volunteer, faith-based organizations as other parts of the response.
“Would not a wholesale overhaul of the agency be in order?” Norton asked after noting the bipartisan discontent with FEMA.
But Fugate replied that the people now in FEMA have experience, but did not directly answer the question.
“My concern is that we have 2 separate structures for managing disasters,” Florida Republican Ranking Member Mario Diaz-Balart said in comparing FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security.
Norton was also concerned that FEMA might not be autonomous enough. She asked forcefully whether the Homeland Security Department continues to exert control over FEMA that has been rejected by the Congress.
Fugate said he reports directly to the Homeland Security secretary, but said FEMA’s authority has not been compromised.