Senate panel wants FEMA replaced

In a critique of the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, a Senate panel on Thursday will urge that the heavily criticized Federal Emergency Management Agency be replaced with a new agency.

While the panel did not call for the resignation of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, its 86 recommendations, obtained by Reuters, were riddled with references to FEMA’s emergency response as slow-moving and bureaucratically stifled that it said were beyond repair.

“We propose to abolish FEMA and build a stronger, more capable structure within (the Department of Homeland Security),” the report said. “It will be an independent entity within DHS, but will draw on the resources of the department and will be led and staffed by capable, committed individuals.”

The new agency, which would be called the National Preparedness and Response Authority, would have responsibility both for natural disasters, such as a hurricane, and a possible terror attack.

Its director would report to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, but would have a direct line of communication to the president during catastrophes and would have “political authority” to direct federal employees outside of the agency, the committee


The panel, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has had a series of hearings excoriating Chertoff, former FEMA chief Michael Brown and the government’s handling of one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

The August 29 storm killed about 1,300 people, displaced hundreds of thousands and shattered New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Many people throughout Louisiana and Mississippi are still without permanent homes and much of the region’s infrastructure is crippled.

Government investigations of the Katrina response have pointed to poor lines of communication among federal agencies. There has been considerable debate in Washington about whether FEMA should remain part of Homeland Security, which was created after the September 11 attacks, or become a separate agency.

Chertoff has come under harsh criticism across party lines for the slow and often flawed government response to the storm. Brown was forced to quit after thousands of hurricane victims were stranded in a flooded New Orleans.

President George W. Bush is set to travel to the region on Thursday to applaud the thousands of volunteers who have come to the Gulf Coast to lend their help.

The committee had no official comment pending the formal release of the recommendations on Thursday morning. Summaries were shared with senators late on Wednesday, and a full report by the panel is expected early next month.

The House Government Reform Committee in February issued its own report, written by the majority Republicans, which found the U.S. government was unprepared to react to the catastrophic impact of Katrina. It said quicker involvement by Bush might have improved the response.

(Additional reporting by Peter Szekely)

© 2006 Reuters