The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has approved legislation Thursday authored by Chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ranking Member Joe Lieberman (D-CT) that would reform the nation’s emergency management system to enable it to better prepare for and respond to a disasters. Entitled the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, the bill would implement many of the findings of the Committee’s Hurricane Katrina report, including reconstituting FEMA, improving emergency staffing, strengthening enhancing planning and preparedness, facilitating better communications and interoperability capabilities among emergency responders, improving emergency assistance programs, and reducing waste, fraud, and abuse.
The bill addresses shortcomings in many of the vital preparation and response areas determined by the Committee’s eight-month investigation into Hurricane Katrina as necessitating congressional action. While some of the 88 recommendations that flowed from this investigation can be adopted by administrative action, the Post- Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act consists of important steps that only Congress can take.
“Hurricane Katrina showed us in tragic terms that we need a new way to conduct disaster mitigation, preparation, response, and recovery efforts. If we do not reform flaws revealed during Katrina, we will see more unnecessary human suffering and destruction of communities. Our bill puts forth a careful and comprehensive program for improvement of our emergency management system. This is no academic exercise; it is a concrete, nuts and bolts plan designed to rebuild and strengthen a broken system,” said Senator Collins.
“This legislation begins to address some of the most egregious problems we encountered in our Katrina investigation,” Senator Lieberman said. “The goal is to save people’s lives and ease the recovery of survivors by bringing together the skills, resources, and missions for effective preparedness and response to catastrophes when local and state agencies are overwhelmed by a terror attack or a natural disaster.”
The bill strengthens FEMA by giving it special status within the Department of Homeland Security, restoring its preparedness authority, requiring its leaders to have appropriate experience, and protecting it from departmental reorganizations that could erode its budget and assets. The Senate has already adopted this major element of the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act. On July 11, Senators Collins and Lieberman offered an amendment to the Homeland Security Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2007 to keep FEMA an independent agency within the Department of Homeland Security, similar to the Coast Guard. The measure was approved by the full Senate by a vote of 87-11.
Key components of the legislation would:
Improve communication and coordination among federal, state, and local agencies by strengthening FEMA’s current 10-region structure of FEMA by, providing for standing, multi-agency federal-state-local strike teams that will be ready to act and deploy in a region they will already know and understand before a disaster occurs.
Improve the agency’s communications. Ensures a direct link between FEMA and the White House by designating the Administrator of the FEMA as the principal advisor to the President on emergency-management issues.
Enhance emergency communications capabilities by consolidating several communications programs within a new Office of Emergency Communications within FEMA, requiring a national emergency-communications strategy, coordinating establishing dedicated grants to states and localities for interoperable communications, and regularly assessing the operability and interoperability of the communication systems that are essential for disaster response.
Direct the federal government to develop and maintain a national disaster-recovery strategy in coordination with state and local governments.
Provide better-trained emergency professionals, creating a National Homeland Security Academy that will offer both classroom and distance-learning instruction and training to DHS, state, and local homeland-security professionals.
Implement a variety of measures to reduce waste, fraud, and abuse. The bill directs DHS to identify emergency-response requirements that can be contracted in advance with pre-screened vendors so that vital commodities and services can be secured and delivered promptly. The bill also imposes civil and criminal penalties for misrepresentation of assistance needs.
Require FEMA to develop housing and recovery strategies; increase hazard mitigation assistance; and give FEMA the authority to provide permanent or semi-permanent housing, giving it more flexibility to address specific needs.
Providing for additional assistance to individuals and communities when there is a catastrophic event