The Federal Emergency Management Agency is about the last government office people would want to have to deal with. Its primary job, after all, is helping people recover from disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes.
While the federal government's aid is welcomed, some state and local officials say dealing with FEMA has gotten more complicated since it became part of the Homeland Security Department in 2003. And there is ongoing debate in Washington about whether FEMA — one of 22 agencies in Homeland Security — would be better off returning to its independent status.
"You have agencies within DHS all trying to vie for their piece of attention from the secretary, for their piece of pie from the budget, and I just think it's not a good culture for FEMA to be in," says Russ Decker, the emergency management agency director for Allen County in northwestern Ohio."Are we supposed to talk to the DHS guy? Are we supposed to talk to the FEMA guy? Who are we supposed to be talking to to get help?"
Need For Quick Decisions
Decker says federal aid is crucial to disaster recovery and is welcomed. But he says there has been confusion among local officials, who are unsure about who calls the shots for the feds.
"In a time of disaster, I think that's one more burden that the local and state governments don't need put on their shoulders, is trying to figure out how do we play the political games in Washington," Decker says.
FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is widely considered the agency's low point. Andrew Sachs, who worked at FEMA before it became part of Homeland Security and is now a consultant, says among the agency's many failings in New Orleans was its inability to make quick decisions.
For instance, Sachs says, churches and other organizations that became last-resort shelters for evacuees had to exhaust their own resources while waiting for FEMA to make up its mind about whether to help.
"The agency has to have the flexibility to make decisions on the fly on the ground within the broad authorities that it has," Sachs says. "Now, there is no decision that can't be made without it having to go back to Washington, D.C., and that causes problems when you're dealing with a disaster time frame and a disaster context."
But the current structure of FEMA does have its defenders, among them Tom Ridge, the first Homeland Security secretary.
"I don't buy in to the criticism that because you have a slightly different chain of command that the communication between one or two more people is an impediment or an obstacle for FEMA to do its job," Ridge says.
Ridge, also a former Pennsylvania governor, says the debate over where FEMA belongs is a classic inside-the-Beltway battle brought on by the agency's failures after Katrina:
"Right now it's more about turf than it is about effective delivery of services," Ridge says. "It was after the incredible failure of government at all levels — at all levels: federal, state and local — that suddenly people wanted to take a look at FEMA and take a look at the response plan. And I have to tell you, I don't think the organization or the plan failed those communities and failed those citizens. Frankly, I think people failed those people."
Backers of keeping FEMA part of Homeland Security have some key congressional allies, including the chairman and senior Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
New Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano hasn't weighed in, saying she has not had a chance to discuss the issue with President Obama. Napolitano, who must appoint a FEMA administrator as one of her first tasks, says her job is to make sure FEMA is well managed and running as smoothly as possible. If that's the case, she says, where the organizational box goes, as she puts it, loses a lot of its relevance.