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No Consensus on FEMA Focus

EVEN BEFORE the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was deluged with criticism for its poor handling of the emergency response effort after Hurricane Katrina, a plan to drastically reorganize the agency had been put forth by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Michael Chertoff.

Under that proposal, which is a part of the total restructuring plan for DHS, FEMA would be tasked solely with response and recovery. The preparedness functions would be consolidated under a new undersecretary for preparedness, who would be responsible for facilitating grants and overseeing nationwide preparedness efforts, including telecommunications, cybersecurity, and critical infrastructure. Both the director of FEMA and the undersecretary would report directly to Chertoff.

The proposed reorganization, which leaves FEMA under DHS, falls short of some critics’ recommendations that FEMA be given back the independent agency status that was taken from it when it was merged under DHS. But the integrated approach is still championed by James Jay Carafano, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and coauthor of DHS 2.0, the report credited with prompting Chertoff’s package of proposed changes.

The proposed changes will make FEMA directly responsible to the secretary, removing the layer of bureaucracy and management duties that go along with being an undersecretary, says Carafano. He adds that this move will help the agency better focus on its historic mission: response.

A tighter focus could also help FEMA respond more efficiently, says Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University. “I’d like to see FEMA focus much more tightly on the 36 hours after an event and then the recovery,” he says.

But some experts question whether splitting up preparedness and response can work, noting that efficient response to disasters depends almost entirely on whether preparedness has been effective.

“We’re facing a structural problem,” according to Scott Fosler, former president of the National Academy of Public Administration, which did two studies of FEMA in the 1990s after Hurricane Andrew that were used as the basis for the reorganization of the agency during the Clinton Administration.

Fosler worries that the plans to remove the preparedness function from FEMA will result in less communication. Moreover, FEMA should never have been incorporated within DHS, Fosler says. Restructuring it within that department simply reinforces a wrongheaded path.

Carafano, however, says that because the head of FEMA and the undersecretary for preparedness will both report to the secretary, the organizational problems Fosler fears will be mitigated.

In addition, the preparedness directorate will support FEMA with training resources and will continue to rely on FEMA’s subject-matter expertise to advise the preparedness function.

For first responders, however, the success of the reorganization will be measured in the amount of funding available. “Our focus has remained on the need to have both preparedness and response portions of emergency management funded properly,” and first responders should have the authority they need to get the job done, says Jeff Zack, spokesman for the International Association of Firefighters.

But maintaining funding and staffing levels becomes much more difficult as bureaucracy becomes more complicated, says Pietro Nivola, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. FEMA has had significant staffing and funding problems in the past, says Nivola, and its reorganization may not help.

While adequate funding is critical, it is hoped that the reorganization will begin to fix the problems that led to the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.