Change on FEMA's horizon?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be folded into the new Department of Homeland Security.

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON, D.C. | January 6, 2003

"I think of it as moving different houses under one umbrella."

—Ken Curtin

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be folded into the new Department of Homeland Security, but major changes in national disaster response won’t occur immediately, according to FEMA officials.

With 22 departments and agencies – from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to FEMA to the relatively new Transportation Security Administration – coming together in the new DHS, the undertaking is so huge nobody yet knows how creation of the new department will affect operations of its individual components.

On November 25, 2002, President Bush signed the Homeland Security Act of 2002 into law. The act restructures the executive branch of the federal government by establishing the new DHS, creating for the first time a federal department with a mission of preventing, protecting against, and responding to acts of domestic terrorism.

DHS will officially open its doors March 1, less than two months away. For many of the federal employees who will eventually be taken under the DHS wing, the grand opening will seem more like "situation normal."

"The transition teams are still meeting," said one FEMA official. "They're still making decisions on how everyone is going to come together and where they're going to come together.

"There has been an organizational chart prepared," he said. "Whether it has been passed onto Secretary-designate Tom Ridge, I don't know. We had a meeting with our deputy director week before last and all these questions were asked and there were not a lot of answers. A lot of things have to happen."

As for how all this will affect FEMA's working relationship with the nation's many voluntary disaster response groups, that is still up for grabs.

"It's really quite unclear," said Ken Curtin, FEMA's voluntary agency liaison, who works closely with many national voluntary disaster response groups.

But Curtin said he doesn't foresee big changes at first for voluntary groups.

"I think of it as moving different houses under one umbrella. I don't see much change at first." However, he added, "I would see staff reorganization being a possibility."

Regardless of where FEMA is housed, the mission of many voluntary agencies, at least from FEMA's perspective, isn't likely to change anytime soon.

Although the relationship between DHS and voluntary disaster response groups is still unclear, these groups will continue to relate to DHS through FEMA, at least in the near future, according to both FEMA and DHS officials.

Current political rhetoric maintains DHS will work closely with local communities, but so far even the year-old Citizen Corps – President Bush's initiative to involve every citizen in homeland security awareness and preparedness – has not had widespread involvement with voluntary disaster response groups.

DHS Secretary-designate Ridge said in a town hall meeting for future DHS employees that one main DHS goal will be to encourage local community involvement. "We will truly have the opportunity to engage our partners at the state and local level. People will see that," he said.

But even Ridge admits such change will take a long time to trickle that far down, given the future size and scope of DHS.

"On March 1, by and large, every man and women in this office and 170,000 plus employees around this country will go to work doing the same thing they're doing now," he said. "But in time, we hope that we can empower them and enable them, through a variety of different means, to do an even better job than they're doing now. And I believe that's going to happen."

Whatever shape DHS ultimately takes at the local level, the mission of voluntary agencies will likely stay the same, at least for the near future, added Curtin.

"Voluntary agencies do what the government doesn't do when it comes to disaster response," he said. "The government got into disaster response long after voluntary agencies did."

But long-term changes for voluntary disaster response groups could be in store if FEMA or other entities within the new DHS change the way they respond to –- or define –- disasters.

"We're not sure how the government's approach to disasters will change," said Curtin.

For now, even though FEMA may change its structure, the Stafford Act -- the law that guides federal disaster response -- will stay intact.

Since its enactment in 1974, the Stafford Act – more formally the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act – has provided the basis for federal assistance to state and local governments impacted by a significant disaster or emergency.

"In this case the Stafford Act doesn't change," said Curtin.

In some ways, though, changes will happen regardless of the law. For example, some responders are concerned that immigrant communities – already wary of asking for government assistance – will become even more leary when FEMA's assistance is offered under the umbrella of homeland security.

Gov. Ridge has acknowledged that there may be anxiety about DHS among immigrants, future DHS employees, FEMA partners, and disaster survivors. "I suspect there's an enormous amount of uncertainty. Hopefully, there's a little bit of excitement because we have the opportunity to do something that happens in this town every 50 or 60 years, and that's create a new department."

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