The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (HSGAC) held a hearing this morning on “Hurricane Katrina: Lessons for Reform.” The hearing previewed the likely direction of the HSGAC’s upcoming report on Katrina and highlighted a number of ideas for reform of the nation’s disaster management system.
In her prepared remarks, Sen. Susan Collins hinted at the likely focus of the HSGAC’s Katrina report:
Our purpose and our obligation now is to move forward to create a structure that brings immediate improvement and that guarantees continual progress. This will not be done by simply renaming agencies or drawing new organizational charts. We are not here to rearrange the deck chairs on a ship that, while perhaps not sinking, certainly is adrift.
This new structure must be based on a clear understanding of the roles and capabilities of all emergency management agencies. It must establish a strong chain of command that encourages, empowers, and trusts front-line decision-making. It must replace ponderous, rigid bureaucracy with discipline, agility, cooperation, and collaboration. It must build a stronger partnership among all levels of government with the responsibilities of each partner clearly defined, and it must hold them accountable when those responsibilities are not met.
That’s precisely the approach that I think is needed, and I’m looking forward to reading the committee’s report on Katrina later in the month.
The hearing also featured testimony by the GAO’s David Walker and DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner, both of whom prepared lengthy written testimony for the hearing. Walker’s testimony expands upon his statement from Feb. 1 where he laid out the GAO’s initial observations on Katrina. The testimony is notable for the dismissal of the idea that moving FEMA out of DHS will solve its problems:
Because of FEMAâ€™s mission performance during Hurricane Katrina, concerns have been raised regarding the agencyâ€™s organizational placement, including whether it should be disbanded and functions moved to other agencies, remain within the Department of Homeland Security, or again become an independent agency. Importantly, other factors, such as the experience of and training provided to FEMA leadership and adequacy of resources may be more important to FEMAâ€™s future success than its organizational placement.
Organizational changes, such as separating FEMA from DHS, are often viewed as a quick fix to address performance issues. Based on our institutional knowledge regarding organizational performance factors, organizational changes alone may not adequately address underlying systemic conditions that result in an organizationâ€™s performance problem. Conditions underlying FEMAâ€™s performance during Hurricane Katrina could involve the experience and training of DHS or FEMA leadership; the clarity of FEMAâ€™s mission and related responsibilities and authorities to achieve mission performance expectations; the adequacy of its human, financial, and technological resources; and the effectiveness of planning, exercises, and related partnerships.
Skinner’s testimony covers a similar set of issues, and is notable for its disagreement with the proposals in the Townsend Report to transfer health- and housing-related services from FEMA to HHS and HUD respectively. Skinner notes:
The report correctly identifies these two critical challenges as deficiencies in the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. However, the accompanying lessons learned and recommendations, as proposed, may create a greater bifurcation in the timely and consistent provision of assistance to victims of disaster….
In our opinion, transferring FEMA’s housing and human services programs to other federal entities could significantly affect the continuity of assistance to disaster victims. Rather than defining FEMA’s role as only responsible for mass care and sheltering, we believe more attention and resources needs to be focused on FEMA’s coordination and case management activities with other federal and nongovernmental partners to facilitate and expedite a disaster victim’s recovery.
Overall, it looks like this was a thoughtful and interesting hearing; the full prepared remarks of all of the witnesses are available here. The committee will certainly have a lot to digest in the next few weeks as it finalizes its report.
Update (3/8): Here is GovExec’s story on the hearing.