Lawmakers Propose Changes at FEMA

Several lawmakers on Capitol Hill have introduced bills to investigate the handling of Hurricane Katrina (search) and to restore independence to the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the storm and its aftermath devastated many areas of the Gulf Coast.

"The people of these states were victimized twice," Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said at a Capitol Hill news conference on Tuesday. "First they were victimized by the hurricane. Second they were victimized by the ineptness of the government response."

Milulski and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., introduced one bill calling for removing FEMA (search), the chief agency in the federal government's response to disasters since 1979, from the Department of Homeland Security, where it was moved under the current Bush administration. The legislation would return its status as a Cabinet-level, independent federal agency.

Under the senators' bill, the FEMA director would report directly to the president and would be in charge of coordinating other federal agencies in relief and rescue efforts for any national disaster. In March 2003, under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, FEMA was relegated to a subagency of DHS reporting to that department's secretary.

Their second measure creates an investigatory commission to probe the handling of relief efforts. The Katrina Commission, named after the hurricane that last week wreaked so much damage across four states in the Gulf Coast (search) region, will be modeled after the one established after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"I hope that we will send a clear message through these two efforts that we know America deserves better, that our government failed the people of this nation and that we can't afford continuing failure or future failures," Clinton said.

Both senators encouraged the resignation of Michael D. Brown (search), undersecretary of Homeland Security for Emergency Preparedness and Response and head of FEMA.

"The agency is so dysfunctional right now. I don't know what's left," said Clinton, adding that she couldn't understand how the agency could continue under its current leadership.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who attended the news conference, also criticized FEMA's leadership.

"FEMA has lost its way. FEMA has been submerged in a sea of bureaucracy," said Dingell, who with Mikulski, made references to Brown during their speeches, calling him a "political crony," "hack" and "bumpkin."

Said Mikulski about FEMA's untimely response to Hurricane Katrina, "There were guys in wingtips that just didn't fly."

Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., on Wednesday introduced similar legislation that calls for a separate FEMA.

"This is not solely a response to the tragedy in the Gulf; it is the result of the increasing evidence that FEMA should not be hindered by a top-heavy bureaucracy when needed to act swiftly to save lives," Foley said in a statement. "After suffering through three direct hurricane hits last summer and watching my friends in the Gulf weather Katrina, I have seen one consistent problem-red tape and bureaucratic obstacles getting in the way of saving lives."

Whereas FEMA was able to act more efficiently when it was a separate agency, Foley said, the extra "web of paperwork" and other steps it now has to take to get anything done adds "further risk to people."

"We need to make FEMA the gold standard of emergency relief," the congressman said. "Our goal is to turn that agency into the rapid-response and long-term response disaster agency that FEMA wants to be."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.