Lessons from Katrina and the Future of FEMA

Acting FEMA Director David Paulison has taken over from former agency chief Mike Brown, who was widely criticized for his performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Madeleine Brand discusses the future of the federal agency with David McEntire, who teaches emergency management at the University of North Texas.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The New Orleans airport reopened to commercial flights today as relief efforts continued in the city and other Gulf Coast communities hit by Hurricane Katrina. Yesterday, President Bush named a new head for the Federal Emergency Management Agency that coordinates those efforts. The new man, David Paulison, spoke to the press today.

Mr. DAVID PAULISON (Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency): I can't deal with what happened in the last two weeks, but I can tell you from this point forward, we are going to be focusing on the victims of this hurricane. We've had a hurricane of unimaginable proportions, and we're going to deal with it. We're going to get the people out of shelters, and we're going to move on and get them the help that they need.

BRAND: Paulison's appointment came as the White House tried to deflect criticism that the federal government has been too slow to act. With us to discuss some of the challenges facing FEMA is David Mcentire. He teaches emergency management at the University of North Texas.

And welcome to the program.

Mr. DAVID MCENTIRE (University of North Texas): Good afternoon.

BRAND: Now a lot of criticism of FEMA. What do you think Mr. Paulison has to do to bolster the agency's reputation?

Mr. MCENTIRE: Well, I think there's a number of things. I think by appointing someone who has emergency management experience, I think President Bush has taken one step out of many, but there's going to be many others that need to be taken, including kind of revamping the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

BRAND: Revamping for the long haul or right now to deal with this emergency?

Mr. MCENTIRE: Well, I think there's--both of those situations need to be addressed. Over the past several years, especially after 9/11, FEMA has been buried in a bureaucracy. It's had a lot of power and decision-making authority taken away from it. And we need to really rebuild this agency because a lot of good employees have left in light of some of the changes that have taken place lately.

BRAND: And replaced by people who don't necessarily have the requisite experience?

Mr. MCENTIRE: Well, that's part of it. After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security was created, and frankly, some of the people who have established policies for the federal government in terms of responding to disasters may have come from different backgrounds, and they've created policies that in some cases people have scratched their head at. For example, the National Response Plan was initially written by someone in the Transportation Security Administration, not from someone from FEMA, and it was not until it was reviewed several times and went through several drafts and received many comments that it kind of was brought back in line. And so those types of things have taken place.

BRAND: And I also understand that a lot of the responsibilities that FEMA used to have are now being contracted out.

Mr. MCENTIRE: Yes. And that worries me to a great extent. Of course, we want to get everybody involved in emergency management whether they're from the non-profit sector or the private sector, but what happens is in some cases, you know, companies are there, they want to make their money, and then they move on to other things. And it's important for us to develop long-term capability to deal with disasters, and I worry that the private sector may not always have that commitment to the public.

BRAND: An article in today's Washington Post suggests that FEMA is not capable of handling the enormous task of handing out the contracts for rebuilding. Congress has earmarked more than $60 billion for recovery and rebuilding, and one official at the Government Accountability Office said there are going to be fraudsters coming out of the woodwork. How do we prevent that?

Mr. MCENTIRE: Yeah. Well, I think there's two parts to your question here. First of all, FEMA has only 2,500 employees plus another 4,000 people who respond to disasters when they occur, but it's a very small agency. And frankly, it's woefully understaffed and undermanned, and so we need to put more resources into FEMA to make it the agency that we want and perhaps the agency that we once had. But in addition to that, I think you're right. There will be fraud. There will be people coming out of the woodwork to get their hands on some of this money whether it's to clean debris or to help rebuild and provide assistance or those even seeking assistance who don't deserve it. And so that's something that we're going to have to be very vigilant of.

BRAND: David Mcentire teaches emergency management at the University of North Texas. Thank you.

Mr. MCENTIRE: You're welcome.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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