Today the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee circulated the draft of its long anticipated report, Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared, to key senators and staff on the Hill. The public release follows next week.
The report analyzes the response to the devastation caused last summer by Hurricane Katrina. The report, along with extensive assessments published by the House Homeland Security Committee and the White House Homeland Security Counsel, makes the case that the biggest shortfall in federal response to disasters is the lack of attention given to preparing the nation to respond to catastrophic disasters. While some recommendations in the draft report will help to fix the problem of federal response, others will make it worse. The report reflects a much hard work and does makes a useful contribution to disaster preparedness response, but the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee has more work to do before the recommendations of report are suitable for implementation.
Putting First Things First
The most significant lesson learned from Katrina is that even in catastrophic disasters the answer is not to turn to Washington first. Over-centralization is the least efficient and effective way to respond to large-scale disasters, and federalizing the national response to disasters violates the principle of federalism.
Washington does, however, have a significant mission in disaster response. Only the federal government can build a national response system that facilitates cooperation among regions and major metropolitan areas and efficiently organizes federal assets to support governors and mayors. In addition, only the federal government can mass the assets needed to supplement the immediate needs of state and local governments in the aftermath of catastrophic disasters. Post-9/11 efforts overly focused on doling out grants to states, cities, and the private sector rather than focusing federal dollars and resources on the federal government's unique federal responsibilities. Those mistakes cannot be repeated after future disasters.
The Senate draft report scores in its argument for establishing Department of Homeland Security (DHS) regional preparedness offices and reorganizing FEMA. The report also rightly argues for changes in the role of FEMA's director. Under the report's proposals, FEMA's director would report to the DHS secretary and serve as a senior advisor to the president. These changes will strengthen the effectiveness of the national disaster response system.
The Senate's report errs in arguing that preparedness and response activities need to be centralized under a single agency in DHS. That proposal would recreate the organizational structure that existed before FEMA joined DHS and the Emergency Preparedness and Response directorate had been abolished. History shows that, when preparedness and response activities are centralized at the federal level, all the resources and effort flow to the response side, and preparedness never gets done.
Last year, DHS Secretary Chertoff announced a reorganization that fixes these preparedness problems, and he has promised to restructure FEMA. The Senate should let the secretary do his job and not saddle him with organizational solutions that have already failed.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.