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Analysis: Strengthening FEMA in DHS

Control of the grants and training functions is also essential to enable the agency to set nationwide priorities for preparedness, emergency management advocates argue.
by Shaun Waterman
UPI Homeland and National Security Editor
Washington (UPI) Sep 18, 2006
The compromise about the future of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency reached by lawmakers over the weekend, leaves the agency inside the Department of Homeland Security, but gives its chief a direct line to Congress and the president.

Legislative language that senators said would be added to the must-pass homeland security appropriations bill would make the FEMA director a deputy secretary-level post within the department, with an additional role as the president's chief emergency management adviser.

"This legislation will provide FEMA with the authority, resources and leadership necessary to help us be better prepared for the next catastrophe, whether it is natural disaster or a terrorist attack," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Collins' committee carried out one of several inquiries into the failed U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina last year, and she said the changes agreed Friday drew on the conclusions of that report.

Legislators in the House, where the Government Reform Committee under the chairmanship of Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., conducted a parallel inquiry, had pushed for FEMA to be taken out of the huge new Department of Homeland Security altogether -- and returned to the status of an independent agency with a Cabinet-level director.

Instead, under the deal Collins announced, FEMA will remain within the department, but regain its responsibility for leading the country's efforts to prepare for major disasters or terrorist attacks -- effectively reversing a series of changes made by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff last year.

Following his so-called Second Stage Review in July 2005, Chertoff broke off the responsibility of FEMA for preparedness, and its grants and training functions, and placed them in other parts of the department.

Emergency managers said this cut the agency off from the year-round contact with state and local authorities it needed both to develop relationships with those it would be working with in a crisis, and to have the continuously updated picture of the state of preparedness around the country that is needed when disaster strikes unexpectedly.

Control of the grants and training functions is also essential to enable the agency to set nationwide priorities for preparedness, emergency management advocates argue.

Now the expanded agency will re-absorb the Directorate of Preparedness Chertoff created a year ago, except for three parts -- infrastructure protection, cyber security, and the new telecommunications office.

To guard against future efforts to break up the expanded agency, the new legislation would "ring-fence" FEMA -- effectively protecting its budget and organizational structure from any further changes by the department -- in the way that the U.S. Coast Guard and Secret Service have been since their merger into homeland security in 2003.

"It's about time," said Jerome Hauer, the former New York City emergency management chief who is now a disaster response consultant. Hauer and other emergency management advocates argued at the time that FEMA needed the same protection. Because the agency didn't get it, they say, its budget and responsibilities were chipped away, crippling its response to Hurricane Katrina.

"There needs to be stability," said Hauer, "The constant upheaval at (the Department of Homeland Security) haven't helped (the agency) get the stability it needs to move forward."

The FEMA director will continue to report to the homeland security secretary, but will have the rank of a deputy secretary and deputies at the undersecretary level, making him effectively the second or third-most senior official in the department.

Moreover -- in language that echoes the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon -- the director will have a direct line to Congress and will be the president's principal advisor for emergency management. During an emergency, he can be temporarily promoted to Cabinet rank by the president.

"Whenever Congress wants the unvarnished view of the director, they can get it," an administration official familiar with the terms of the deal told United Press International, adding that he would be able to brief and testify before lawmakers "without going through the normal processes" of review designed to ensure that officials' views are consistent with administration policy.

The change is designed to give the newly empowered FEMA chief a hotline to Congress so that he can report to them without looking over his shoulder at his superiors in the administration.

According to another person familiar with the proposal, it also downgrades the position of principal federal official -- the post held by Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen during Katrina -- to make it clear it is not an operational post.

The official said the administration broadly supported the changes envisaged by lawmakers. A letter to conferees from the White House Office of Management and Budget earlier this month, however, did express concern about the implementation of some of the bill's detailed provisions.

Among the less attention-grabbing changes the proposal will make are several amendments to the Stafford Act, the law governing federal disaster relief assistance.

Officials say there is concern about the cost implications of the expanded authorities for housing assistance. The proposal would raise the limit FEMA could spend to repair people's homes, and would allow the agency to use other forms of temporary housing for people left homeless in a disaster, instead of just trailers.

The legislation would also double the proportion of federal disaster relief that could be used for so-called mitigation -- protecting against future disasters -- to 15 percent.

Source: United Press International

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Ideas to rebuild the southern US city of New Orleans, devastated a year ago by a powerful hurricane, were showcased at an international architecture exhibition that opened in Venice, Italy on Sunday.

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