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Political wrangling criticized

As the Senate recommended abolishing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), national and local disaster responders expressed doubts about both the substance and the timing of this message.

BY SUSAN KIM | WASHINGTON, D.C. | April 27, 2006

"Now is not the time to clean an ark out when it's starting to rain. . . Why not start with FEMA and improve upon it?"

—Kevin King

As the Senate recommended abolishing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), national and local disaster responders expressed doubts about both the substance and the timing of this message.

A Senate inquiry Thursday urged the scrapping of the nation's disaster response agency. Its central recommendation - among 85 others - is to dump FEMA, then create a National Preparedness and Response Authority under the oversight of the Homeland Security Department.

Lawmakers who led the inquiry conceded that such an overhaul could not be made in time for hurricane season. In turn, some responders questioned whether the announcement - made weeks before hurricane season begins - was constructive.

"I question the timing of it all," said Kevin King, executive coordinator of Mennonite Disaster Service. "Why now? Now is not the time to clean an ark out when it's starting to rain. What are we, a month away from hurricane season?"

Hurricane season starts June 1. King and others are concerned that dismantling FEMA and creating a new response agency would be little more than a name change accompanied by more of the same kind of time-eating inefficiencies already plaguing hurricane response.

"Why not start with FEMA and improve upon it? FEMA has done an incredible amount of work. Unless we find something better to replace it, we'd better be careful how we criticize it. If the politicians want to put it all on FEMA, that's not fair," said King.

King and other faith-based leaders praised FEMA staff who work with voluntary agencies during long-term recovery. "FEMA's voluntary agency liaisons - that's a great sector and that story is not reaching the halls of Congress," said King.

A pervasive sense of national failure does not help build enthusiasm among hurricane survivors and volunteers, either, said Gabe Roffman, who helped develop a database to match Hurricane Katrina survivors with affordable housing.

"A sense of hopelessness is set by the government's lack of progress," he said. "It's not the rhetoric itself that is damaging, it's the lack of tangible evidence that the government has any ability to take care of its citizens. With the leadership of the country setting these kinds of examples, it is no wonder that the populace feels alienated from helping to solve this problem."

There is a growing gap between decision-making on Capitol Hill and field response to disasters, observed the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, the United Methodist Committee on Relief's executive secretary for U.S. response.

"The political wrangling that's going on in D.C. is totally disconnected in many ways from what is happening in the field," said Hazelwood. "There was a time when FEMA had more career disaster response people in its upper levels. Today, FEMA seems to be weakened by political appointees with no understanding of disaster response and how it should work."

That's not the case in FEMA's regional offices or among FEMA's field workers, he added. "There, I see highly effective people who have dedicated their lives to effective response - and they're being hamstrung by the political wrangling in D.C. If they want to fix it, they need to listen to the people in the field."

As the Senate announcement - the third major federal report on the government failures exposed by Katrina - hit the presses Thursday, at least some state and local responders wondered when the political wrangling would cease and be replaced with noticeable change.

"The constant churning with within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) needs to stop," urged Eric Holdeman, director of the King County Office of Emergency Management in Washington state. Holdeman wrote a widely-circulated opinion piece in The Washington Post shortly after Katrina hit that pointed out how FEMA had been weakened by bureaucracy over the past several years.

Eight months later, Holdeman points out that the DHS Inspector General report shows how the connection with state and local jurisdictions is broken. "Before we propose doing away with FEMA (in name only) we first need the federal government to establish some consistent, competent leadership in national and regional emergency management positions," said Holdeman. "All organizations rise and fall on leadership. Organizational stability is needed for the time being."

A fleeing sense of stability - along with lack of confidence that the government can create an effective response agency from scratch - has some local responders urging Congress to fix what's broken - but keep FEMA intact.

"For all the things that FEMA has done wrong, they've also done a lot of things right in other areas," said Conni Davis, Arizona community coordinator for Katrina's Angels, a nonprofit helping hurricane survivors. "We're not fans of FEMA either. I am displeased in many areas. But you cannot judge everything by one incident. So many other agencies have needed to be brought in, and they are just now assimilating and working together."

If FEMA is abolished and a new agency created, Davis said, "I can't even imagine the lag time. It's going to further slow services to disaster survivors."

For people who worked with FEMA when it was widely regarded as a government success story, Thursday's announcement came as a painful reminder of how things have changed.

"In recent years, my observation is that FEMA continues to work because of super-human efforts by super-dedicated staff, despite overwhelming institutional and political problems," said Ann Patton, a community activist who founded Tulsa Project Impact, a disaster mitigation project in Oklahoma. "We do not have the luxury of sinking our ark and rebuilding a new one piecemeal in mid-ocean, so to speak, in a time of almost perpetual crisis. I would hope we can build on FEMA's strengths and recreate a sound and sturdy agency."

Jody Hill, executive director of Florida Interfaith Networking in Disaster, also remembers seeing FEMA's better days, and agreed the agency still employs some highly effective people, even if top-level leadership is poor.

"There are some incredible people in FEMA who are half killing themselves trying to help people - and this Senate recommendation ends up being a serious insult to them in some ways. Then FEMA ended up with some people who have no idea of what goes into disaster response. I want policymakers to remember - these are human lives you are talking about."

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