During a meeting at the White House last week, I asked President Bush to extend the reimbursement deadline for Mississippi counties and towns still cleaning up debris left in Hurricane Katrina’s wake. He did just that. The President also extended the deadline for which individuals can apply for federal disaster assistance. Both these decisions foreshadow things to come, specifically major changes to America’s disaster response apparatus, its endurance, its management and its execution.
Endurance: Both these deadline extensions are critical to our recovery. It means your city or county will be able to pay for debris removal without incurring excessive local costs. It also means that thousands of Mississippians still displaced by Katrina have much longer to evaluate their losses and apply for assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Yes, I have been very critical of FEMA and its performance in Katrina’s wake. But to those who think this is a criticism of the president or abandonment by me of basic conservative “small government” principles, think again. If anything, Katrina shows how a bloated, big government bureaucracy slows down or, worse, breaks down in times of crisis. After all, it was not government agencies, but faith-based organizations, our U.S. military and private volunteer citizens who really came through in Katrina’s immediate aftermath.
Management: It’s clear that Congress made a mistake by putting FEMA, originally an independent agency, under the Department of Homeland Security when we created this all encompassing agency after the September 11, 2001, attacks. As you may recall, I had raised some questions about this decision at the time. My experience with hurricanes Camille, Frederick, Elena, and Georges left me with a firsthand awareness of just how critical, quick federal disaster response must be after a hurricane. Then came Katrina with her unprecedented devastation. Now the bar has been raised well past even that of Camille.
More than ever, Congress needs to restore FEMA to a separate, independent agency. If any agency must be flexible and have a rapid-response capability, FEMA must be the agency most proficient at cutting red tape after a disaster. As its name implies, this agency is about “emergency management,” not emergency reaction. Its workers must be free to manage a disaster as independently as possible, without having to negotiate through additional layers of bureaucracy within the Homeland Security Department in Washington.
Execution: Those few who have suggested that our military should play a lesser role in the next natural disaster are staggeringly out of touch. Our military earned even more respect during Katrina. They saved tens of thousands of lives, cleared roads and debris, and fixed broken infrastructure, all in addition to performing tough jobs like recovering bodies. They not only deserve our respect, they should be incorporated into America’s next generation disaster plan. That’s why I was a bit surprised when a Jackson daily newspaper suggested that the presence at natural disasters of our men and women in uniform should be curtailed, and that it might infringe upon civil liberties. What? That newspaper’s editors need to spend a little more time 150 miles to the south. On the coast, folks realize that our military is an inseparable part of any federal disaster response and should remain available for that mission. Our military personnel want to do that, and most Americans, especially those of us in the disaster zone, welcome their contribution.
Some folks are using the unexpected magnitude of Katrina to score political points. The American people deserve more than just petty politics, especially right now. They want real action based on the many lessons Katrina is teaching us. Americans deserve a better, swifter federal disaster response, both for the remainder of this disaster and for those disasters to come.