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Lawmakers Avoid Separation of FEMA, Homeland Security

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Lawmakers Avoid Separation of FEMA, Homeland Security

Lawmakers Avoid Separation of FEMA, Homeland Security

Lawmakers Avoid Separation of FEMA, Homeland Security

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Congress appears reluctant for now to remove the Federal Emergency Management Agency from the Department of Homeland Security. Many emergency managers say absorption into Homeland Security weakened FEMA and contributed to the its disorganized response to Hurricane Katrina.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Congress appears reluctant for now to remove the Federal Emergency Management Agency from the Department of Homeland Security. That's the case even though many emergency managers think the agency's absorption into Homeland Security weakened FEMA and contributed to the government's disorganized response to Hurricane Katrina. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

Lawmakers at a House hearing last week heard some pretty consistent advice from a stream of witnesses.

Mr. KENT BUCKLEY (Emergency Manager, Mississippi): Emergency managers in Mississippi believe that FEMA should be restored to an independent agency and its director restored to Cabinet-level status. You can't dismantle the nation's...

Mr. ALBERT ASHWOOD (Emergency Manager, Oklahoma): First, remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and make it a stand-alone agency answering to the president of the United States. The Emergency Management...

Former Governor BOB WISE (West Virginia): And so now the main natural disaster response agency is removed from direct communication to the White House, and the top of the organizational chart has no real experience or sensitivity to dealing with disasters.

FESSLER: That was former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, preceded by Oklahoma Emergency Manager Albert Ashwood and Emergency Manager Kent Buckley of Mississippi. But within hours of this testimony, Congress moved in the opposite direction, passing a spending bill that further absorbs FEMA into Homeland Security. The legislation endorses a plan by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to strip FEMA of its disaster preparedness functions, such as training and exercises, and move them into a new preparedness directorate. FEMA would focus then on disaster response.

Mr. CRAIG FUGATE (Emergency Management Director, Florida): This is kind of like, you want to put an organization behind glass and say: Only break in case of disaster.

FESSLER: Craig Fugate is Florida's Emergency Management director. He worries that he'll spend most of his time working with one Homeland Security office, the preparedness one, then when disaster occurs...

Mr. FUGATE: I'll turn around and have to deal with the FEMA folks who--I'll probably not have the same communication the day they contact with. You know, the old ad analogy is you play like you practice. Well, I'm practicing with the second string, and when the first string comes in, I'm going to have to go learn a whole new team.

FESSLER: But Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff says it makes sense to put under one roof everything his agency does to prepare for disasters: intelligence sharing, protecting critical sites and training first responders. He says the needs are often the same, whether it's preparing for a terrorist attack or a hurricane. David Heyman of The Center for Strategic and International Studies agrees.

Mr. DAVID HEYMAN (The Center for Strategic and International Studies): All of these entities have one thing in common, and that is they focus on protecting our critical infrastructure against terrorist attacks and, in some cases in FEMA, against the natural disasters. There's really no logical reason why they should be separate from each other. They should, in fact, be working together, both in terms of managing resources and program activities.

FESSLER: He says it's up to department heads to make sure FEMA stays in the loop. And under Chertoff's plan, the emergency agency would report directly to him. It's not clear, though, what Congress will do in the long run. House Republican Dave Reichert of Washington heads the Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness subcommittee. He says lawmakers really won't know what to do until they finish their investigation into the hurricane response.

Representative DAVE REICHERT (Republican, Washington): We don't have all the information yet. And so for people to be saying at this stage of the game FEMA definitely needs to be removed from the Department of Homeland Security--it's a decision that people are making without all of the facts.

FESSLER: He says some of those facts involve more than FEMA, such as the performance of state and local officials, and that removing FEMA from Homeland Security might just create other organizational problems in responding to disasters down the road. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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