Wednesday, September 21, 2005


*Here it comes again...

Hurricane Rita is picking up strength and will probably hit land Saturday morning, at the latest. Once again the Gulf Coast is the target, presumably the Texas coast, although Louisiana will probably get affected by the storm as well. I don't see much in the way of signs that the federal government is any better prepared for this storm than it was for Katrina, although the Katrina refugees have been evacuated from the Houston shelters in which they had been placed.

Congressman James L. Oberstar, who represents Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District, is the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and he had this to say in this morning's Star Tribune.

I firmly believe FEMA's reaction was hampered by its new position as part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Hurricane Katrina brought to the Gulf Coast the most devastating natural disaster in our nation's history. Parallel to the tragedy of human and physical disruption is the obvious disarray of the federal government's response. FEMA should have been in charge -- but was not. For a long while, no federal agency appeared to be in charge, coordinating the recovery efforts.

In fact, the federal response appeared to be another one of the administration's faith-based initiatives: Close your eyes and pray for a miracle.

As Rep. Oberstar points out, it didn't have to be this way. He argued right from the start that FEMA did not need to be embedded in the Department of Homeland Security because it did not need the extra layer of bureaucracy the move would entail.

. I argued strongly against moving FEMA into the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS):

"To move [FEMA] into this new Department of Homeland Security without a clearly defined homeland security role is, [in] my judgment, a mistake. We have not seen a delineation of what is homeland security compared to response to floods, hurricanes, blizzards, earthquakes, tornadoes. You know, when your home is underwater up to the eaves, are you going to wonder, where is FEMA? Are they on some mission looking for terrorists or are they going to be on a mission looking for your lost children and rescuing you from the rooftop of your home?"

I quoted from a report prepared by the Brookings Institution:

"There is very little day-to-day synergy between the preventive and protective functions of the border and transportation security entities in the Department and the emergency preparedness and response functions a consolidated FEMA contributes. There is, therefore, little to be gained in bringing these very different entities under the same organizational roof. And the costs are not insignificant.

"FEMA," the report says, "would likely become less effective in performing its current mission in case of natural disasters, as time, effort, and attention are inevitably diverted to other tasks within the larger organization."

James Lee Witt, FEMA director during all eight years of the Clinton administration, sat at the Cabinet table and reported directly to the president. Michael Brown, by contrast, sent a memo to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff asking permission to send assets to New Orleans. We need to restore FEMA's independence as well as its credibility. It needs a director who can act decisively, not one who must navigate an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy and ask, "Mother, may I?" before the agency can respond to a disaster.
[Emphasis added]

He concludes by stating what I think is the obvious (but which apparently is not so obvious to the Republicans):

The government's first priority must be to protect its citizens. It has failed to honor that responsibility, and we must ensure that such failure never happens again.

Unfortunately, Mr. Oberstar, we may be facing just such another failure this weekend.


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