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Senate panel recommends abolishing FEMA

The Federal Emergency Management Agency should be abolished and rebuilt from scratch to avoid a repeat of multiple government failures exposed by Hurricane Katrina, a Senate inquiry has concluded.
Federal Emergency Management Agency employees, like this one at the unveiling of a "Katrina cottage" in Chalmette, La., last March, are visible along the Gulf Coast. But a Senate committee believes that FEMA itself is not as effective as it should be. Alex Brandon / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hurricane Katrina’s latest fatality should be FEMA, the nation’s disaster response agency, a Senate inquiry concluded in calling for a government overhaul to avoid future failures like those the devastating storm exposed.

Eighty-six recommendations by the bipartisan panel indicate the United States is still woefully unprepared for a storm of Katrina’s scope with the start of the hurricane season little more than a month away.

The new authority would be “better equipped with the tools to prepare for and respond to a disaster,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who led the inquiry by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Describing FEMA as a “shambles and beyond repair,” she said the reforms “will help ensure that we do not have a repeat of the failures following Hurricane Katrina.”

Though the proposed changes do not place blame on any official or government agency, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., will offer “additional views” to the panel’s findings in a statement accusing President Bush of failing “to provide critical leadership when it was most needed.”

“The United States was, and is, ill-prepared to respond to a catastrophic event of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina,” said the recommendations. “Catastrophic events are, by their nature, difficult to imagine and to adequately plan for, and the existing plans and training proved inadequate in Katrina.”

The recommendations were being released Thursday morning and will be included in the Senate panel’s full report to be issued next week.

The recommendations, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, are the product of a seven-month Senate investigation. The probe follows similar inquiries by the House and White House and comes in an election year in which Democrats have seized on Katrina to attack the Bush administration.

Bush travels to Gulf
President Bush was visiting Louisiana and Mississippi — which bore the brunt of Katrina’s wrath — on Thursday.

Katrina, which struck on Aug. 29, was one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. The storm killed more than 1,300 people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, left hundreds of thousands of homeless and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage.

The recommendations conclude that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is crippled beyond repair by years of poor leadership and inadequate funding. They call for a new agency — the National Preparedness and Response Authority — to plan and carry out relief missions for domestic disasters.

Unlike now, the authority would communicate directly with the president during major crises, and any dramatic cuts to budget or staffing levels would have to be approved by Congress. But it would remain within the Homeland Security Department and would continue receiving resources from the department.

Fears of more bureaucracy
But the proposal drew disdain from Homeland Security and its critics, both sides questioning the need for another bureaucratic shuffling that they said wouldn’t accomplish much.

“It’s time to stop playing around with the organizational charts and to start focusing on government, at all levels, that are preparing for this storm season,” Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said.

Former FEMA Director Michael Brown, who resigned under fire after Katrina, said the new agency would basically have the same mission FEMA had a year ago before its disaster planning responsibilities were taken away to focus solely on responding to calls for help.

“It sounds like they’re just re-creating the wheel and making it look like they’re calling for change,” Brown said. “If indeed that’s all they’re doing, they owe more than that to the American public.”

Other reports, advice
The House report, issued in February, similarly criticized Bush, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Brown for moving too slowly to trigger federal relief. The White House report, which came a week later, took a softer tone and singled out Homeland Security for most of the breakdowns.

Many of the rest of the Senate recommendations were far less dramatic, ranging from creating a Homeland Security Academy to encouraging plans to evacuate and shelter pets during a disaster.

They also called for more funding for disaster planning and response at all levels of government, clarifying levee maintenance responsibilities, and suggested better contracting procedures to avoid waste or fraud in the rush to get aid to disaster victims.