FEMA audit highlights DHS failures

Weaknesses in FEMA’s response system during Hurricane Katrina were
just one symptom of major management challenges at the Homeland
Security Department, an internal report issued Wednesday concludes.

report by the department’s inspector general also questions Homeland
Security’s ability to properly oversee billions of dollars worth of
contracts it awards annually.

The inspector general’s findings
were issued as the nearly three-year-old department struggles to revamp
its programs and resources to prioritize top risks.

The Federal
Emergency Management Agency, an arm of the Homeland Security
Department, was singled out as a top concern by investigators who
pointed to the agency’s “overburdened resources and infrastructure” in
dealing with the double-whammy of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

found that several key FEMA programs _ distributing aid to disaster
victims, emergency response information systems, modernizing flood maps
and managing contracts and grants _ remain inadequate.

“Based on
our work related to prior emergency response efforts, we have raised
concerns regarding weaknesses” within those programs, the audit by
Homeland Security Inspector General Richard L. Skinner said.

“when one considers that FEMA’s programs are largely administered
through grants and contracts, the circumstances created by hurricanes
Katrina and Rita provide an unprecedented opportunity for fraud, waste
and abuse,” the report found.

“While DHS is taking several steps
to manage and control spending under Katrina, the sheer size of the
response and recovery efforts will create an unprecedented need for
oversight,” the report said.

Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, followed by Rita on Sept. 24.

officials responded to the audit with an 11-page point-by-point
analysis, acknowledging and explaining shortcomings in some areas and
defending actions in others.

Homeland Security spokesman Russ
Knocke said Wednesday the department is working to make programs more
efficient and effective. He also called changes to FEMA “one of our
greatest and most urgent priorities.”

“The American public will
be hearing from us, in short order, about how we intend to build the
capability of FEMA into a 21st century agency, focusing on the agencys
core response and recovery mission,” Knocke said.

As of last
week, the most recent data available, Homeland Security had awarded
$4.1 billion in Katrina-related contracts _ mostly for construction and
housing. By comparison, the department awarded nearly $10 billion in
contracts on all projects last year, the audit found.

In its
response, the department said it has created a procurement office to
give strict oversight to the hurricane contracts process, and has
brought in outside advisers to help.

The findings were part of an
audit by Skinner’s office, which is tasked with assessing Homeland
Security’s management challenges each year.

Homeland Security,
the third-largest Cabinet-level federal department, has made progress
since it was created in 2003 by merging 22 disparate agencies, the
audit found.

However, “it still has much to do to establish a cohesive, efficient and effective organization.”

Other areas of concern, as reviewed in the report, include:

  • Financial
    reporting problems, especially at U.S. Immigration and Customs
    Enforcement, which failed to properly maintain its accounting records.
  • Delays
    in creating and installing a new personnel system that replaced
    salaries based on workers’ seniority with a merit pay system. The
    delays were caused, in part, by a federal lawsuit challenging the
    proposed regulations.
  • Poor coordination between border patrol
    officers and immigration investigators, contributing to security
    vulnerabilities at borders. Earlier this year, Skinner recommended
    merging the two entities to improve coordination, but Homeland Security
    Secretary Michael Chertoff has rejected that idea.


On the Net:

Homeland Security Department: http://www.dhs.gov/

© 2005 The Associated Press