Emerson to FEMA: Cut the red tape

Friday, March 31, 2006

The Congresswoman told the FEMA director the agency must be streamlined so it can quickly respond to disasters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency should become an independent agency and relax its overly bureaucratic rules for helping disaster victims, U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson told FEMA's acting director this week.

During a hearing Wednesday in the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Emerson told acting director David Paulson that FEMA must be streamlined so it can quickly respond to disasters.

Emerson has been pushing FEMA since last year to plan a training exercise to test its ability to respond to an earthquake along the New Madrid Fault. The multistate earthquake drill could highlight problems that front-line responders would face in the event of a major quake similar to the one that struck the region in the winter of 1811-12.

FEMA has $20 million set aside to prepare for catastrophe, and Emerson is pushing for part of that sum to be used for the New Madrid Fault exercise.

FEMA became part of the Department of Homeland Security when it was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Prior to that time, it was an independent, cabinet-level agency that reported directly to the president.

"The president needs to hear directly from FEMA what this agency needs to respond to American crises," Emerson said in a news release. "Clearly, we cannot allow that message to be filtered by another agency, nor can we shield FEMA from the president's or the public's scrutiny."

Bureaucratic rules impair the agency's ability to help disaster victims, Emerson said during the hearing. FEMA purchased 20,000 mobile homes for displaced people following Hurricane Katrina, she noted, but 11,000 are parked, unused, at the Hope, Ark., airport.

The federal goverment is paying $1.25 per day rent for each mobile home parked at the airport, she said. And FEMA rules require that the mobile homes be sold one year after they are delivered to the agency even if they are unused.

When FEMA provides a mobile home as emergency housing, its rules require that it provide a new mobile home, said Jeffrey Connor, a spokesman for Emerson. While the mobile homes sit unused, he said, taxpayers are paying to house some storm victims in New Orleans hotels while some Mississippi victims live in tents.

"It makes my head spin to think about how much money is being wasted while Katrina victims deal with continued hardship," Emerson said.

While Emerson was questioning Paulson in Washington, Missouri's director of public safety was answering similar concerns in Jefferson City. During a meeting of the Joint Committee on Terrorism, Bioterrorism and Homeland Security, Rep. Jack Jackson, R-Wildwood, Mo., questioned whether the state was meeting its planning goals for a major catastrophe or terrorist attack.

A comprehensive plan is 30 to 40 percent complete, state homeland security director Paul Fennewald told the committee, according to a release from Jackson's campaign for state auditor.

Work on the plan should be accelerated, Jackson said, with a complete plan ready for the committee in June.

The recent tornadoes and storms tested local, state and federal responders. But large-scale exercises expose flaws in the system, said Mark Winkler, regional coordinator for the State Emergency Management Agency.

The agency, for example, has conducted regional exercises on hazardous materials spills near Wapapello Lake and along the Mississippi River in recent years, he said. Those exercises help make local, state and federal agencies familiar with their strengths and weaknesses, he said, allowing for a better response in case of a true emergency.

"We do need to work on integrating the local response to the state response and the federal response," Winkler said.

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