MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is one of 22 agencies that make up the huge Department of Homeland Security. For local emergency officials like Russ Decker, that's the problem.
Mr. RUSS DECKER (Allen County Emergency Official): Are we supposed to talk to the DHS guy? Are we supposed to talk to the FEMA guy? Who are we supposed to be talking to get help?
SIEGEL: Decker is among those who want FEMA to be independent again. For Janet Napolitano, the new Homeland Security secretary, one of the first orders of business is naming a FEMA chief and deciding the agency's future.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR: The Federal Emergency Management Agency is about the last government agency you'd want to have to deal with. Its primary job, after all, is helping people recover from disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes. The problem is, some who do have to work with the agency, the state and local governments who need the federal government's aid, find it's not so easy. They charge FEMA has gotten lost in the Department of Homeland Security's bureaucracy.
Here's Russ Decker again. He's the Emergency Management Agency director for Allen County in northwestern Ohio.
DECKER: You have 23 agencies within DHS all trying to vie for their piece of attention from the secretary, for their piece of pie from the budget. And I just think it's not a good culture for FEMA to be in.
NAYLOR: Decker says federal aid is crucial to disaster recovery and welcome. But since FEMA was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security nearly six years ago, there's been confusion on the part of local officials unsure about who's calling the shots for the feds.
DECKER: You know, in a time of disaster I think that's one more burden that the local and state governments don't need to put on their shoulders, is trying to figure out how do we play the political games in Washington.
NAYLOR: FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 is widely considered the agency's low point. Andrew Sachs worked at FEMA before it became part of Homeland Security and is now a consultant. He says among the agency's many failings in New Orleans was its inability to make quick decisions. For instance, Sachs says, churches and other organizations which became last resort shelters for evacuees had to exhaust their own resources while waiting for FEMA to make up its mind about whether to help.
Mr. ANDREW SACHS (Former FEMA Employee): The agency has to have the flexibility to make decisions on the fly on the ground within the broad authority that it has. And now there is no decision that can't be made without it having to go back to Washington, D.C., and that causes problems when you're dealing with a disaster timeframe and a disaster context.
NAYLOR: But the current structure of FEMA does have its defenders, among them former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge.
Mr. TOM RIDGE (Former Governor, Pennsylvania): I don't buy into the criticism, because you have a slightly different chain of command that the communication between one or two more people is an impediment or an obstacle for FEMA to do its job.
NAYLOR: Ridge, the first Homeland Security secretary, says the debate over where FEMA belongs is a classic inside-the-Beltway battle brought on by the agency's failures after Katrina.
Mr. RIDGE: Right now it's more about turf than it is about effective delivery of services. It was after the incredible failure of government at all levels, at all levels - federal, state and local - that suddenly people wanted to take a look at FEMA and take a look at the response plan. And I have to tell you, I don't think the organization or the plan failed those communities and failed those citizens. Frankly, I think people failed those people.
NAYLOR: Backers of keeping FEMA part of the Department of Homeland Security have some key congressional allies, including the chairman and senior Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Secretary Napolitano herself hasn't weighed in, saying she has not had a chance to discuss the issue with President Obama. She says her job is to make sure FEMA is well managed and running as smoothly as possible. If that's the case, she says, where the organizational box goes, as she puts it, loses a lot of its relevance.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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