The release of the Senate report on Hurricane Katrina has reinvigorated the public and Congressional debate on how to organize emergency preparedness and response. The Senate report recommended abolishing FEMA and creating a new National Preparedness and Response Authority (NPRA), and Sen. Collins and Sen. Lieberman are drafting legislation to implement this recommendation. Members of the House Homeland Security Committee are drafting legislation that is similar to this proposal, as reported yesterday by GovExec. (Here’s a sneak peek at the draft legislation).
Another school of thought within Congress argues that FEMA should be taken out of DHS, a view supported by Rep. Tom Davis, who led the House’s Katrina investigation, and acknowledged by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne in a column this week. And a third viewpoint, supported by Sec. Chertoff, favors leaving things the way they are, with preparedness activities separated from response and recovery within DHS.
My reaction: while organizational structure matters somewhat, it’s a distraction in the debate over what went wrong in the preparation and response to Hurricane Katrina. Sen. Collins and Sen. Lieberman identified four principal failures in their remarks discussing the Senate’s report: failures of planning, decision-making, systems, and leadership. None of those failures have organizational structure as a direct or proximate cause. Instead, these failures were primarily the result of two things: (1) the individual performances of people in some of the critical roles and (2) deficiencies in systems and lack of resources for the response effort (i.e. logistics systems, communications systems, sufficient National Guard and law enforcement personnel). If the debate focuses too much on structure and insufficently on these two sets of issues, then we risk moving towards a solution that creates an illusory sense of progress, but doesn’t hold people accountable for their actions or deliver the strategic core investments that are needed in the national response system today.