The Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrated both the agency's own limitations and the misperceptions that many have about its function as part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Congress and the Administration should take this opportunity to set things right. Approving Homeland Security Secretary's Michael Chertoff's proposal to reorganize DHS would help. And changing the name of FEMA to reflect the agency's real mission wouldn't hurt.
Secretary Chertoff's reorganization plan, proposed a month before Katrina, recognized that FEMA had been saddled with a number of activities over the years that have nothing to with its core function, such as handing out grants and running the U.S. Fire Administration. At the same time, the law that created DHS spread the tasks of preparing for, protecting against, and mitigating natural and man-made disasters all over the department. This organization ran contrary to the law's stated purpose of creating a "one-stop shop" for state and local governments and the private sector. Chertoff's proposed consolidation of all preparedness functions under a new Undersecretary would better manage these support activities.
Once disasters strike, it would be FEMA's job to take over. As a stand-alone agency in the department, it would focus "24/7/365" on its core mission of mobilizing the nation for disasters like Katrina. In addition, Chertoff wanted to beef-up the agency so that it is better prepared to deal with catastrophic events. He also rightly insisted that FEMA remain in DHS. Taking FEMA's activities, which must be closely coordinated with preparedness measures like planning, training, and issuing grants, out of DHS makes no sense.
New Mission, New Name
Some of the criticism of the agency's response
to Katrina reflected a misunderstanding of FEMA's role. This is
understandable, as virtually none of the words in the agency's
title suggest what it does:
FEMA is not just concerned with the federal response. It
also works with state and local governments and private sector
entities like contractors and the Red Cross. FEMA organizes a
FEMA is not an "emergency responder." Its mission is to assist
state and local governments in getting crucial resources to
- FEMA is not a manager. It mostly conducts assessments, identifies requirements, provides advice and recommendations, and coordinates the deliver of support. State and local governments manage the response to disasters.
A more appropriate title might be the "National Disaster Coordinating Agency."
A name change and a clear mission might not meet all the agency's needs, but they would be a step in the right direction. The end goal should be building a stand-alone agency within DHS with the capabilities and resources to coordinate the national response to disasters like Katrina.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.