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.

    The
    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.

    Investigators
    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.

    Moreover,
    “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.

    Department
    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