FEMA's Expanded Responsibilities Questioned

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency's focus was expanded after Sept. 11 to encompass terrorist attacks, along with its traditional field of natural disaster relief. Analysts discuss whether the change undermined FEMA's ability to respond to Hurricane Katrina.


Four years ago the head of FEMA was a member of the Cabinet with direct access to the president. That changed after the Department of Homeland Security was created. Now FEMA is just one of 22 organizations that make up DHS. As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, some who work in emergency management are asking whether that's hurt the government's ability to respond to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

Last week as Lake Pontchartrain swelled through the streets of New Orleans Dave Neal noticed many state and local emergency management officials making the same observation.

Mr. DAVE NEAL (Director, Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events, Oklahoma State University): The media could get in and Wal-Mart could get in a day afterwards. Why couldn't the federal government?

SHAPIRO: He thinks the answer has to do with the federal government's priorities in the last few years. Neal directs the Center for the Study of Disasters and Extreme Events at Oklahoma State University.

Mr. NEAL: Typically, when I talk to local coordinators, we hear this general theme that the only type of equipment or training we can do is related to terrorism, that the specific hazards for the community--whether it's floods, whether it's hurricanes--we can't get the money to train for that. We can't get the equipment to deal with those hazards.

SHAPIRO: FEMA used to be in charge of giving out disaster preparedness grants. Now grant requests to go to a central office at the Department of Homeland Security. Dave Neal compares the current set of priorities to civil defense spending 40 years ago when a large chunk of federal funds went to preparing for a nuclear attack.

Mr. NEAL: You go back to the '60s, we see there was no nuclear attack but yet we had tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, a lot of them on an annual basis. So I think we need to step back and really take a look at what types of events do happen and plan accordingly rather than just dumping most of our money into one specific type of hazard.

SHAPIRO: Department of Homeland Security spokesman Marc Short says the criticism isn't entirely fair.

Mr. MARC SHORT (Spokesperson, Department of Homeland Security): By law some of the grant programs we administer have to be anti-terrorism-focused, and that is congressionally legislated. However, the vast majority of our grant programs provide for dual use.

SHAPIRO: In other words, a helicopter is a helicopter regardless of whether it's rescuing a terrorist attack victim or a flood victim. Jack Harrald of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University puts it this way.

Mr. JACK HARRALD (Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management, George Washington University): You know, if the levees had been blown by terrorists or by a hurricane and the city of New Orleans flooded without evacuating people, the results are pretty much the same.

SHAPIRO: Still, Harrald thinks the federal response to Katrina was too slow, and he blames the structure of DHS for some of the problems.

Mr. HARRALD: We've created a very top-heavy bureaucratic type of structure that is less agile, less creative. And one of the things that we know in these catastrophic events is things don't play out the way you expect them to do. You can't preplan for every incident.

SHAPIRO: He thinks the response may have been faster if the head of FEMA had direct access to the president through a Cabinet-level post. That does not seem likely to happen anytime soon, though. Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman is the ranking Democrat on the Governmental Affairs Committee that oversees DHS.

Senator JOE LIEBERMAN (Democrat, Connecticut; Governmental Affairs Committee): Prevention and response to terrorist attack--certainly response is not that different from response to a natural disaster. So I begin with a kind of presumption in favor of FEMA staying within the Department of Homeland Security.

SHAPIRO: But, he says, the committee will conduct oversight hearings with an open mind. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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