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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette September 3, 2005

Has terror hurt disaster relief?

Some say bureaucracy slows FEMA

By Karen MacPherson

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration's focus on fighting terrorism over the past few years has weakened the federal government's ability to respond quickly to natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, some experts said yesterday.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- traditionally the lead federal organization in disaster relief efforts -- has been subsumed into the mammoth U.S. Department of Homeland Security and then hit with budget cuts and an exodus of veteran staffers, these experts say.

Now, FEMA officials are shouldering much of the public blame for the slow federal response to the devastation caused by Katrina, a reaction that many disaster management experts say isn't fair to the agency.

"I'm afraid that the president may use all of this to put the nail in the coffin for FEMA, when FEMA is not to blame," said Bob Freitag, a 20-year FEMA veteran who now is director of the University of Washington's Institute for Hazard Mitigation Planning and Research.

FEMA's response has been hampered by the added layers of bureaucracy that come from being part of the huge Homeland Security Department, Freitag and other disaster management experts say. In fact, the Katrina relief effort now is being led by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.

FEMA officials "have responsibility without authority," Freitag said. "And then there's the fact that the leadership is pushing terrorism, and all the money goes to terrorism. We are certainly at risk of terrorism, but we are also at risk of earthquakes and winter storms and flooding, and there needs to be a balance."

Kathleen Tierney, director of the University of Colorado's Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center, also stresses that Katrina caused a "catastrophe; it is not a garden-variety disaster. To expect that a system that is well-prepared for disasters is also well-prepared for a catastrophe is an error.

"But this isn't the time to jump on any one agency -- it's pointless to get started on the issue of who lost New Orleans," Tierney said. "What we need now is a high-level investigation into what needs to be done to make this nation resilient in the face of natural disasters."

Pennsylvania Rep. Bill Schuster, R-Blair, who heads the House subcommittee with oversight over FEMA, said he planned a review of FEMA's role in Katrina relief efforts. "The focus of FEMA should be disaster assistance, and it is my concern that the recent reorganization has diluted FEMA's focus," he said.

Since Katrina hit Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi earlier this week, FEMA has become a lightning rod for criticism by local and state officials in the areas battered by the storm. Terry Ebbert, head of New Orleans' emergency operations, was particularly critical, calling the sluggish federal relief effort "a national disgrace. FEMA has been here three days, yet there is no command and control," he said Thursday.

Administration officials, from President Bush on down, have acknowledged major problems in federal relief efforts. "The results are not acceptable," Bush said yesterday as he headed off for a tour of the areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

But Bush also indicated that he believed federal officials were doing their best, and FEMA Director Michael Brown has said that the agency's pre-planning efforts were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the storm.

James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow for national and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, argues that "the problem is not a lack of resources, will or the organization to provide assistance. "The problem is how to get it to the tens of thousands of people who need it," he said. "The notion that under these impossible conditions, the dire needs of the city [of New Orleans] could be efficiently addressed in a few days is simple ludicrous."

Carafano also dismisses the idea that FEMA has been marginalized in the Homeland Security bureaucracy, and that a focus on terrorism has diminished preparation for natural disasters. "FEMA's role as a responder hasn't changed an iota," he said, insisting that much of the criticism of FEMA's new role under the Homeland Security Department comes from "disgruntled former employees."

John Pike, a national security analyst who heads a Virginia think tank called Globalsecurity.org, believes that FEMA always has had trouble getting its act together. "There was possibly a brief period in the Clinton administration when it appeared to have traction, but that was really quite exceptional," he said. "It has always been regarded as being either troubled or mismanaged or a backwater. It's never gotten any respect.

But Tierney, like other experts, contends that the administration's focus on terrorism has blunted FEMA's ability to respond to natural disasters.

"Natural disasters have never gotten anything like the attention they need. This isn't anything new," she said. "But it appears that the thinking in the Homeland Security Department was that there wasn't anything new to be learned about natural disaster management ... and that FEMA would take care of anything that came along."

 


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