WASHINGTON – Five years ago,the Post Katrina Emergency Management Act gave the Federal Emergency Management Agency the authority and tools to be more effective. The agency head testified Tuesday how far the agency has come since then.
“We’ve done a lot,but we’ve still got a lot to do,” Craig Fugate,FEMA administrator,said during a House Homeland Security subcommittee meeting.
Fugate took over the agency four years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. Michael Brown,director during the historic storm,resigned shortly after the disaster.
“Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on the Gulf Coast revealed an emergency management structure that was unorganized,uncoordinated and seemed uncaring,” Rep. Bennie Thompson,D-Miss.,said. “FEMA clearly needed to find a way to fulfill its mission – disaster response.”
Fugate said the law gave the agency clear guidance on its mission and priorities and created Incident Management Assistance Teams.
“I’ve seen a different FEMA,” Thompson said to Fugate. “Obviously,it’s always a work in progress. I’ve never seen you as an administrator not address the problems you’re presented.”
The new teams,13 regional and three national,are staffed with full-time personnel and help FEMA better coordinate with communities,which Fugate said is critical.
For FEMA to fully dispatch,a governor has to ask the president for a disaster declaration. But Fugate said the agency is working in other ways to help states and communities mitigate disasters before their capabilities are overwhelmed.
“Our goal is to get there early,work with the state,anticipate needs and not wait on a request,but stand where we can to help get to a better situation faster,” Fugate said.
The agency is developing a new emergency response system – the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System,which will send information out quickly and through as many systems and devices as possible. The agency has also coordinated with the Federal Communication Commission to perform the first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System on Nov. 9.
An area left unaddressed under the Stafford Act,which establishes FEMA’s guidelines,is the power of federally recognized tribes.
Fugate said the Stafford Act makes tribes subsidiary to the state,meaning they cannot ask the president for a disaster declaration.
“Even if you have a federally recognized tribe that was severely impacted,if the governor chooses not to ask,the tribe has no recourse,” Fugate said. “That’s one of the issues yet to be resolved.”
Fugate said the agency was able to make a rule change allowing tribes to receive FEMA grant money independent of the state.
Another aspect of the Stafford Act that has proven controversial is that,like the Internal Revenue Service or Social Security Administration,if FEMA mistakenly awards funding to a household,the agency is required to recoup the funds.
“There’s not much leeway in there. If we are owed the debt,we must seek it out,” Fugate said in an interview after the hearing.
To mitigate the issue,which has plagued Hurricane Katrina survivors,Fugate said the agency is working to improve maps to catch applicants who may not be eligible because they live in communities that do not participate in the national flood insurance program. He said the agency wants to reduce the error rate,which a 2010 audit said was 1 percent.
“But when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of applicants,” he said,“that’s still people.”
Reach reporter Hope Rurik at [email protected] or 202-326-9861. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.