Saving FEMA

    It is painfully obvious to everyone who is paying attention and even to some who aren’t, apparently including President Bush, that the Federal Emergency Management Administration is broken and may be unfixable under the its current profile. It is frightening to consider what might occur after the kind of terrorist attack we have been contemplating since Sept. 11, 2001.

    If FEMA is incapable of shipping truckloads of ice to the right place or to facilitate the relocation of hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast evacuees weeks after the storm, how in the world can it manage the aftermath of a nuclear explosion or a dirty bomb in a major population area? The answer is, of course, the agency cannot _ not without major surgery that excises some of the bureaucratic cancer that infects it.

    Day after day since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc from New Orleans east into Mississippi and a milder version, Rita, smacked Texas and other parts of the Louisiana shore there has been nothing but one reported FEMA screw up after another. The utterly unqualified director Michael Brown was forced to resign almost immediately after a response that looked as though it had been photographed in slow motion and the new Homeland Security Department failed its first test in nationwide confidence building.

    But that was then and after eight visits to the devastation _ the last with a hard hat on his head and a hammer in his hand _ the president would seem to have the situation under control. Well, at least that was the appearance until the local television news began broadcasting the fact that FEMA was still spending tens of thousands of dollars to ship frozen water to everywhere except where it was needed. After receiving orders to go to places like Iowa, they would be ordered to somewhere else where the outlook for a disaster was about the same. Some truck drivers got so disgusted they dumped the ice along the road or at zoos where bears found it exhilarating.

    There was instant speculation that the ice had to be kept on the road rather than being replaced at locations closer to the disaster because a FEMA had lost the formula for making it.

    In the midst of this comical but sad exhibition of incompetence, there were reports of more serious failures, promised supply trucks that never arrived and delays everywhere. Among the most frustrating of these has been FEMA’s refusal to let local and state jurisdiction have access to their refugee lists to reunite families and weed out wanted criminals, sex offenders and parole violators from among the evacuees.

    Then there is the shelter problem. The waste and woes of this are monumental and so complex as to defy the abilities of trained personnel let alone the nitwits who run this agency.

    Where are all the interim trailer homes and other temporary shelters that FEMA has promised? The administration is spending $8.3 million a day to house more than a half million evacuees in hotel rooms despite a deadline of Oct. 15 to have most of them moved into some more reasonable housing until their own homes are rebuilt. Those in apartments who are receiving $768 a month for rent, the national average, often are faced with costs above $1,000 and are now looking at eviction. Their problems have been exacerbated by the way FEMA handles payments. Rather than pay the landlords directly or give vouchers for rent, FEMA decided to give the evacuees cash, which many then spend for other necessities.

    If it can resist the urge to place blame for political advantage, the Congress should use the current debacle to completely overhaul the approach to such disasters. Nothing in the national experience, including the 9/11 attacks, has been quite as traumatic nor revealed as many flaws as the response to these storms and floods. The best place to start is to remove FEMA from the inept and unmanageable Homeland Security department and completely rebuild it into an independent quick response agency with a minimum of bureaucracy.

    In the meantime, rather than swinging a hammer for the television cameras, the president should be rolling up his sleeves and spending his time cleaning up this mess in Washington.

    (Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)