WASHINGTON – The Federal Emergency Management Agency has become a disgrace since it was merged into the Department of Homeland Security following the 2001 terrorist attacks, former FEMA chief James Lee Witt says.
Witt, who led the agency under President Clinton, said FEMA needs to be on its own again so it can focus on preparing for and preventing catastrophic natural disasters.
"The worst thing about this ... is the fact that the focus since 9/11 has been on terrorists," Witt told students Thursday at the University of Central Arkansas. "That's minimized and demoralized emergency management. We're less prepared today than ever."
A congressional panel on Thursday also released a scathing report concluding deaths, damage and suffering from Hurricane Katrina could have been reduced if federal, state and local officials had moved more urgently. And Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., introduced legislation to re-establish FEMA as an independent, cabinet-level agency.
Witt, an Arkansas native, now runs a Washington-based public-safety and crisis-management consulting firm. If he were running the agency again, Witt said, he would work to make it more efficient, employing new technology, including hand-held computers, and streamlining bureaucratic procedures.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, meeting with lawmakers Thursday to discuss his department's 2007 budget, acknowledged lapses in the federal response. "Our logistics capability in Katrina was woefully inadequate," Chertoff said, and he promised to address failures in the department by June.
Chertoff said if he had the chance to go back, he wouldn't put Michael Brown in charge of the onsite relief effort.
Brown, who quit as FEMA director days after Katrina hit, told The Associated Press that Chertoff "hamstrung" him from responding faster by confining him to Baton Rouge instead of sending him to disaster sites. He said the report supports his position that Homeland Security "has decimated FEMA to the point it can't do its job."