Bush Moves to Keep Paulison at Head of FEMA
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The White House announced late today that President Bush has named a new FEMA director, David Paulison. He's been filling the position on an acting basis since former director Michael Brown left the job seven months ago. The administration reportedly had a hard time finding someone to replace Brown, who was blamed for much of the government's bungled response to Hurrican Katrina.
We're joined by NPR's Pam Fessler, who's following the story. And Pam, seven months without a permanent director. Why did it take so long to fill this job?
PAM FESSLER reporting:
Well, that's right. It's been a long time, they've had a very difficult time. As we know, FEMA's been the subject of so much criticism since Hurricane Katrina and there's also a lot of uncertainty about the agency's future. I spoke with a number of emergency managers around the country, usually state emergency managers, who were unofficially approached for the job and they said they weren't interested. They're worried that as a director of FEMA, that they might have enough power within the Department of Homeland Security, of which FEMA is a part, and that it might tie their hands in responding to a disaster. That was a complaint that Michael Brown had.
There are also some in Congress who were talking about taking FEMA out of Homeland Security, so there's that uncertainty. Nobody really knows what will happen with that, although I think that actually is quite unlikely.
Also, the agency has suffered from a huge loss of experienced emergency managers in recent years. They have hundreds of openings and a number of openings in the top jobs, so it's a very weakened agency. That said, Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff this afternoon said that Paulison was always the number one choice and that the reason it took so long to announce the nomination is because he wanted to name a whole top management team for FEMA, which is something that he also did this afternoon.
BLACK: So David Paulison moves from acting director to the real deal. What more can you tell us about him?
FESSLER: Well, his background is mostly in fire and rescue services. He used to be the U.S. Fire Administrator before he took over as acting FEMA director. And under that, he oversaw federal fire grants. He was the chief of the Miami Dade fire rescue department down in Florida and he also oversaw the Dade County Emergency Management Office and was part of the response to Hurricane Andrew. So he does have emergency management experience.
I would say most people would describe him as pretty low-key. Nice guy. He's not very political. Somebody you would consider a committed civil servant. That said, I've heard some criticism from people within the emergency management community that maybe he won't be forceful enough to stand up within an agency that's primarily devoted to fighting terrorism.
BLOCK: Yeah, this nomination has to get approved by Congress. How does that look?
FESSLER: Well, I don't think that there'll be much opposition to Paulison, per se, on the merits. I think most people find him, that he's qualified for the job. However, since there's so much controversy over FEMA and its, how the agency should be handled, that I think you'll see a lot of lawmakers, a lot of senators, using these nomination hearings as a forum to present their complaints about the agency and to try and direct it in a certain way.
Another possible problem is that Louisiana's Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu, has threatened to block all the Bush administration nominees until her state gets a commitment from the White House for more spending to improve the levees in Louisiana.
BLOCK: And this nominee has a lot to deal with. Hurricane season is coming up fast.
FESSLER: That's right. We're less than two months away. There's still a lot of problems, a lot of uncertainty about exactly how they will evacuate people, how they'll be sheltered, communication problems, supply problems. They say they're working on it, I think they are working very hard on it, but there are a lot of unanswered questions. There's also still the recovery. Many, many thousands of people still don't have homes.
BLOCK: NPR's Pam Fessler, thanks very much.