WASHINGTON – The nation's beleaguered disaster response agency should be abolished and rebuilt from scratch to avoid a repeat of multiple government failures exposed by Hurricane Katrina, a Senate inquiry has concluded.
Crippled by years of poor leadership and inadequate funding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency cannot be fixed, a bipartisan investigation says in recommendations to be released Thursday.
Though short on specifics, such as funding levels, the 86 proposed reforms suggest the United States is still woefully unprepared for a disaster of Katrina's magnitude.
The recommendations, obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press, are the product of a seven-month investigation to be detailed in a Senate report to released next week. It follows similar inquiries by the House and White House and comes in an election year in which Democrats have seized on Katrina to attack the Bush administration.
President Bush will visit Louisiana and Mississippi — which bore the brunt of Katrina's wrath — on Thursday.
"The United States was, and is, ill-prepared to respond to a catastrophic event of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina," the recommendations warn. "Catastrophic events are, by their nature, difficult to imagine and to adequately plan for, and the existing plans and training proved inadequate in Katrina."
The inquiry urges yet another overhaul of the embattled Homeland Security Department — FEMA's parent agency — which was created three years ago and already has undergone major restructuring of duties and responsibilities.
It proposes creating a new agency, called the National Preparedness and Response Authority, that would plan and carry out relief missions for domestic disasters. Unlike now, the authority would have a direct line of communication with the president during major crises, and any dramatic cuts to its budget or staffing levels would have to be approved by Congress.
It would also oversee efforts to protect critical infrastructure such as buildings, roads and power systems, as well as Homeland Security's medical officer. But the inquiry calls for keeping the agency within Homeland Security, waning that making it an independent office would cut it off from resources the larger department could provide.
The proposal drew disdain from the Homeland Security Department and its critics, both sides questioning the need for another bureaucratic shuffling that they said wouldn't accomplish much.
"It's time to stop playing around with the organizational charts and to start focusing on government, at all levels, that are preparing for this storm season," said Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke.
Former FEMA director Michael Brown said the new agency would basically have the same mission as FEMA had a year ago, before its disaster planning responsibilities were taken away.
"It sounds like they're just re-creating the wheel and making it look like they're calling for change," Brown said. "If indeed that's all they're doing, they owe more than that to the American public."