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Bush Administration Finds Replacing FEMA Director Difficult

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Hurricane season is just around the corner and the Bush administration has yet to replace Michael Brown as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The job has already been rejected by at least four candidates. Even the head of Homeland Security admits that it won't be easy to find the right person.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Only 90 days remain before the start of the next hurricane season, but the Bush Administration still doesn't have a new director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Michael Brown left the job nearly six months ago. Emergency managers say one problem in finding a permanent replacement is that FEMA's future is so unclear.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

Oklahoma's director of Emergency Management Albert Ashwood hasn't been offered the top FEMA job. But if he was, he doesn't think he'd be interested.

Mr. ALBERT ASHWOOD (Director, Department of Emergency Management, Oklahoma): I don't have a good definition of what exactly the FEMA job is right now. I know what it use to be. And I know what the law says, but at the same time, I don't know how it fits in the current system.

FESSLER: Investigations by Congress and the White House into the Katrina response have spawned a slew of proposals about what to do with FEMA, about what the agency's role should be before, during and after disaster. Ashwood says he has spoken with colleagues who were approached about the position.

Mr. ASHWOOD: I do know that there is a lot of concern about what actual authority you have as FEMA director right now.

FESSLER: By all accounts, at least four top emergency managers have told the Bush Administration they don't want the job. Richard Andrews, California's former director of Emergency Services, says his reason is personal; he doesn't want to move to Washington, D.C. right now. Neither does Bruce Baughman, Alabama's Emergency Management director and the president of the National Emergency Management Association.

Baughman says there are a lot of different reasons emergency managers aren't lining up to head an agency that was the target of so much criticism after the hurricane.

Mr. BRUCE BAUGHMAN (Director, Alabama Department of Emergency Management): The job's only there for three years. And it's tough to really turn an agency around, like FEMA, in that short amount of time.

FESSLER: And it's just so much uncertainty about what the job entails.

Mr. BAUGHMAN: Obviously, anybody that's taking the job are going to, you know, would like to have answers.

FESSLER: One of the questions is who the director should report to. Michael Brown admitted that he avoided his bosses at the Department of Homeland Security and tried to deal directly with the White House during the hurricane. He thought Homeland Security was too focused on fighting terrorism. But White House Homeland Security Advisor Frances Townsend made clear last week that that kind of behavior won't be tolerated by this administration.

Ms. FRANCES TOWNSEND (Advisor, Department of Homeland Security): Michael Brown chose not to follow his chain of command. That can't happen again. And we are committed to ensuring that we have a qualified, competent and committed director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency that respects and responds to the chain of command.

FESSLER: But some in Congress think that only means more bureaucracy. They proposed that the next FEMA director be allowed to report directly to the president during a crisis. Others on Capitol Hill want to take FEMA out of the Homeland Security Department and to make it an independent agency, as it once was. It's the debate over these issues that has potential nominees so nervous. Homeland Security Department Secretary Michael Chertoff admitted to a Senate committee yesterday that finding people to run FEMA hasn't been easy.

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Homeland Security Chief): This is a huge issue. And you know, I don't want to underestimate the nature of the problem. You've got to be able to attract people. When there's a lot of negative publicity, it doesn't make people want to migrate.

FESSLER: But he says the agency is actively recruiting and hopes to have a management team in place very soon. In the meantime, the acting FEMA director David Paulison is getting ready for the next storm, buying better communications equipment and contracting for emergency supplies. He's also trying to figure out what to do if all those people living in trailers along the Gulf Coast need to be evacuated. Paulison won't say, though, if he'd like to keep the director's job.

Mr. DAVID PAULISON (Acting Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency): I committed to the president that I would get them through the hurricane season and help with the retooling of FEMA, get them back in shape. So that's what I'm doing.

FESSLER: He says he's promised to stay on until the administration does find a permanent director, whoever that might be.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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