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Senate investigators think they found a solution to the problems at the Federal Emergency Management Agency: They want to eliminate that agency. The proposal is one of many ideas for changing the government's emergency response. It comes after the Senate Homeland Security Committee investigated the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
NPR's Pam Fessler obtained an advance copy of the recommendations.
PAM FESSLER reporting:
The committee has come up with 86 ideas for improving the way the government handles disasters. But by far, the most drastic is the elimination of FEMA, the agency that became the poster child for all that went wrong in the response to Hurricane Katrina.
In a written statement, Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins says that she and ranking Democrat Joseph Lieberman have concluded that FEMA is "in shambles and beyond repair." They've proposed instead that something called the National Preparedness and Response Authority be created within the Department of Homeland Security. It would coordinate all of the preparedness and disaster response activities in the federal government.
The director would report to the secretary of homeland security; but during major disasters, he or she would have a direct line of communication to the president. That addresses a big complaint of former FEMA Director Michael Brown. He said his hands were tied during Katrina because he had to work through too many layers of bureaucracy.
The Senate proposals are bound to set off a big debate over the future of FEMA. There are many lawmakers on Capitol Hill and emergency managers who think that the agency should be removed from the Homeland Security Department, where it was placed three years ago. But the Senators said that would be a mistake, that it would result in more confusion and disorganization, that the response to all kinds of disasters, whether natural or manmade, should be coordinated within one agency.
What the panel is not releasing yet is its specific findings concerning the Katrina response. Those will be made public next week after the full committee has a chance to give its approval. But there are unlikely to be many surprises. The panel's investigation is the fifth major one since the hurricane, and all have found failures throughout the government. In their recommendations, the Senators conclude that the United States is still not prepared to respond to a catastrophic disaster.
In a separate statement, Senator Lieberman says the investigation did reveal that President Bush and the White House staff were not sufficiently engaged in the crisis and that the president's failure to provide critical leadership contributed to the poor response. The White House has said that it was engaged, but that the hurricane overwhelmed the government. The administration also says it's taking steps to address the problems. It's already started to do a number of things included in the Senate proposals, things such as setting up strike teams to respond immediately to disasters and the pre-positioning of emergency supplies such as food and water.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: And we put the Senate committees proposal on our website; you can read it for yourself at NPR.org.
Even as senators discuss its elimination, FEMA is preparing for the next hurricane season. That season is just over one month away, so the agency is urging Mississippi residents to consider what to do when the next storm strikes. With help from the state government, FEMA is hanging information tags on the doors of Gulf Coast residents. It's all part of a program called Stay Alert, Stay Alive.
The door hangers come in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, and they tell people that if they think they might need a ride to safety during a hurricane, they can call a toll-free number. Some tags are being hung on doors of people still living in FEMA trailers after Katrina wrecked their homes.
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