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Experts question Chertoff's plan to fix FEMA

WASHINGTON—The key to fixing the problems that bedeviled the federal response to Hurricane Katrina is in the details, top Bush administration disaster officials said Monday. They proposed high-tech tracking of relief supplies, more federal disaster workers and a beefier Homeland Security Department.

But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's new disaster response plan fails to address the poor leadership that became apparent after Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, outside disaster experts and administration critics said. Two Louisiana Democratic congressmen even called for Chertoff's ouster.

Monday's proposals came as House of Representatives investigators prepare to release a report on Wednesday that faults Chertoff for lapses during Katrina. His agency also is struggling to find a permanent replacement for Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown, who resigned last fall in the days following Katrina's devastation.

At a meeting of state emergency management officials in Virginia on Monday, Chertoff said: "Our most urgent priority in the near term is to take a hard, honest look at what we can do to improve our response capability and make substantial progress toward that goal by the looming hurricane season."

Those state disaster officials, who are normally among the first to respond in a crisis, said that they're hearing some good proposals from Bush administration officials, but added that they're upset that the president is cutting federal planning money. On Tuesday, an association of state disaster officials will ask Congress to appropriate $250 million a year in planning funds. The Bush administration has proposed $170 million for the 2007 fiscal year, $13 million less than the budget for 2006.

At least four state disaster professionals have turned down overtures to run the FEMA, several emergency management officials told Knight Ridder.

On Tuesday, Chertoff will appear before the same Senate committee that heard former FEMA Director Brown lambaste his boss last week for tying his hands during the hurricane and for being obsessed instead with fighting terrorism.

Chertoff's decisions during Katrina are under scrutiny as details of the House's Katrina investigation emerge. Knight Ridder reported on Sept. 13 that Chertoff was responsible for the slow activation of the federal catastrophe plan.

"Perhaps the single most important question the (House) Select Committee has struggled to answer is why the federal response did not adequately anticipate the consequences of Katrina striking New Orleans," the House report concludes, according to a 59-page addendum released Monday by two Democratic congressmen. "At least part of the answer lies in the Secretary's failure to invoke the national response plan ... to clearly and forcefully instruct everyone involved with the federal response to be proactive."

The best way to strengthen disaster response is to remove FEMA from the Homeland Security Department and have the FEMA chief report directly to the president, as in the past, said Gen. Julius Becton, who was the FEMA director during the Reagan administration.

"As long as you require the FEMA director to go through two and three levels of bureaucracy to get a decision from the president, you're going to have a major problem," Becton said.

White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend said Monday that she would release the results of her White House investigation later this month. That investigation found more than 100 changes that should be made to federal disaster planning.

Chertoff, in the first of four Bush administration officials' speeches to state emergency management officials on Monday, dismissed Brown's claims that Homeland Security was terrorism-obsessed, saying, "That kind of wedge makes no sense."

Chertoff outlined a stronger, more seamless Department of Homeland Security, with FEMA as one of many players, saying it's important to act "not as lone rangers, but as a unified team."

Chertoff presented several detailed-oriented proposals to Katrina problems. He talked of hiring more disaster professionals. He mentioned Federal Express-like tracking of relief supplies, improved emergency communications systems and better service to disaster victims. The communication problem was faulted by Sept. 11 investigators as a key issue in hampering rescue attempts during the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

Alabama disaster chief Bruce Baughman called the proposals "a good launch in the right direction," but other disaster experts said it wasn't aimed well. They pointed to a recent Government Accountability Office report and to the upcoming House report, saying the problem is leadership and accountability and that it starts at the Department of Homeland Security.

Penn State University public administration professor Beverly Cigler, who studied the response to Katrina for an association of public administration professionals, said some of the administration's changes would make matters worse by removing preparedness from FEMA.

"The way it is now, none of these piecemeal things will deal with FEMA being buried in a gigantic bureaucracy," Cigler said. "I think we are in worse shape now than we were pre-Katrina."

That's not the direction the Bush administration is heading, Townsend said.

"We must restore and re-earn your confidence and trust," Townsend said. "So if someone says, `I'm from the federal government and I'm here to help,' you can believe it and not laugh."


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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