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Action and Accountability:  Changing FEMA
Column by Sen. Trent Lott     2/23/06   GCN

 Iíve introduced a bill to reform the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by separating it from the Department of Homeland Security and once again establishing it as an independent agency, answerable directly to the President and your elected representatives in Congress.  Itís a move that will require FEMA to focus more on taking quick, decisive action and becoming more accountable.

Mississippians know the story.  FEMAís shortfalls were numerous in the initial days following Hurricane Katrina, and, even six months after, the disappointments continue.  Many Mississippians are still without trailers and other federal support which was supposed to be channeled through the Department of Homeland Security and its FEMA division. 

Yet, even as we work through these lingering and inexcusable problems, weíve got to prepare for the storms that will likely hit in the Atlantic and Gulf States this year, as another hurricane season is  quickly approaching.  To get this done, my bill Ė the Federal Emergency Management Improvement Act of 2006 Ė begins FEMA reform by once again establishing FEMA as a separate agency, the way it used to be. 

I know a little about that ďused to beĒ part.  Like many of you, I came of age during Hurricane Camille.  As a young Pascagoulan working for Gulf Coast Congressman Bill Colmer in 1969, I learned quickly what works and what doesnít work during a major hurricane relief effort.  The lesson?  From a governmental standpoint, business as usual bureaucracy isnít workable during a national emergency.  Instead, people in charge need enough autonomy to reasonably rewrite the play book as needed.

Thatís why I had some serious reservations about putting FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security when it was created after 9/11.  I feared then that putting FEMA under another department would only add another level of bureaucracy, hampering time-sensitive decisions, creating departmental paralysis at times of emergency, when processes should actually be expedited.  Those fears came true.

By putting FEMA back under the direct authority of the President, we will take the Homeland Security Department out of the equation,  eliminating a huge layer of time-consuming red tape and an unnecessary barrier between FEMA and direct Presidential and Congressional accountability. 

My bill requires that the FEMA director be appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate, and it provides for the President to include the FEMA director in cabinet meetings when itís appropriate.

My bill preserves FEMAís role as the lead agency for disaster response and puts under FEMA jurisdiction, programs traditionally associated with FEMA, like the National Flood Insurance Program and the Stafford Disaster Relief Act.  The organizational restructuring in my bill will require that FEMA carry out its traditional mission of reducing the loss of life and property with a pre-planned emergency management strategy.

Iím also working with the Senate Homeland Security Committee on some additional changes for FEMA which I believe will be helpful.  These include initiatives to get more reconstruction contracts to local businesses and to have more accountability for contractor performance.

Is this legislation going to solve every problem associated with the Katrina recovery?  No.  Will it mean that FEMA will respond flawlessly to every future disaster?  No.  But it will help shape a better FEMA, geared toward quicker action and thorough accountability.  If FEMA can better manage quicker action and accountability to those it serves, just maybe Americaís next disaster wonít be quite so disastrous.


Senator Lott welcomes any questions or comments about this column. 

Write to: U.S. Senator Trent Lott, 487 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510 (Attn: Press Office) or Email: senatorlott@lott.senate.gov

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