Are FEMA reforms sweeping enough?

Despite proposed fixes, a new inquiry finds deep flaws in disaster response.

A new response force of 1,500 full-time employees. Satellite tracking of trucks carrying food, bedding, and other relief supplies. Reconnaissance teams to speed reports of disasters' effects.

These and other reforms for the embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), announced Monday by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, are all well and good, say some experts. As the response to hurricane Katrina showed, the federal government's preparation for disasters has been so poor that there's much room for improvement.

But refurbishment of the bureaucracy alone may not address what a new inquiry called the root causes of the Katrina-response disaster - inattentiveness, incompetence, and lack of common sense.

"These changes may be all good things, but the question is how they work in practice," says Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University.

After lying dormant for a few months, the issue of failures in the response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita have come roaring back with a vengeance in Washington.

First, testifying before the Senate last week, former FEMA Director Michael Brown defended his reputation. He said the Department of Homeland Security, which includes FEMA among its parts, was interested only in planning to respond to terrorism, not natural disasters. Mr. Brown said he had informed the White House ina timely manner that New Orleans was flooding, and that he'd begged for food and water to be delivered to refugees crowded into the Superdome.

Second, a Republican-dominated House inquiry found that apathy, bad planning, and unheeded warnings contributed to the disaster, according to accounts leaked to news media over the weekend.

A draft of the House inquiry report said the federal government's response to Katrina was marked by "fecklessness, flailing, and organizational paralysis," according to the Associated Press.

Third, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee continued its inquiry into Katrina events on Monday, looking at alleged widespread abuse in federal emergency cash assistance programs for disaster victims.

Congressional investigators have found that as many as 900,000 of the 2.5 million applicants who received aid used duplicate or invalid Social Security numbers, or false addresses and names. "FEMA has a substantial challenge in balancing the need to get the money out quickly to those who are actually in need and ... taking all possible steps to minimize fraud and abuse," stated an audit of FEMA programs, prepared by the Government Accountability Office and released by the Senate.

Chertoff defends his team

Faced with this storm of bad news, Secretary Chertoff responded Monday with a forceful defense of his own and his department's competence. He rejected Brown's assertion that concern about terrorism trumped hurricanes, and he announced wide-ranging changes to FEMA, the first such steps taken since Katrina came ashore Aug. 29.

In addition to the new employees, truck tracking, and recon teams, Chertoff's proposals include sending FEMA out to shelters to register victims for aid, rather than allowing them to register via phone and the Internet, and creating a database of pre-approved private contractors for debris removal.

Homeland Security officials will take "a hard, honest look at what we can do to improve our response capability," said Chertoff.

'Reform' vs. common sense

Given events such as the government's weak response to Katrina, "reform" is often the first watchword, as if perfection of process is always the answer. In some cases - such as widespread cases of fraud in FEMA aid - process was indeed the problem. "Even having a [New Orleans] phone book handy" would have improved the accuracy of FEMA employees handling aid requests, Mr. Light notes.

But general lack of focus can't be ordered or, or legislated. Process problems probably weren't the cause of the government's slow recognition of the unfolding disaster of the New Orleans flooding. Evidence of that was on the TV screen, for all to see; it just took too long for its implications to sink in at the White House and Department of Homeland Security headquarters.

"There's just no way you can order up greater common sense," says Light.

Wire service material was used in this report.

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