House-Senate Negotiators Reach Agreement on Collins-Lieberman FEMA, Hurricane Katrina Legislation

Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Susan Collins and Ranking Member Joseph Lieberman announced that they have reached an agreement with House negotiators on their legislation to strengthen FEMA, paving the way for the bill to be included as part of the Department of Homeland Security spending bill, which will be considered by Congress later this month. In the agreement with leaders of several House Committees, FEMA would be strengthened and become an independent entity within the Department of Homeland Security with the same protections currently provided to the U.S. Coast Guard, nearly identical to the Collins-Lieberman FEMA legislation. The provision was one of the key findings of the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s report, “Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared.”

Senator Collins said, “I am extremely pleased that we were able to reach this agreement, which implements many of the recommendations of the Homeland Security Committee’s Hurricane Katrina report. This legislation will provide FEMA with the authority, resources, and leadership necessary to help us be better prepared for the next catastrophe, whether it is natural disaster or a terrorist attack.”

Senator Lieberman said, “Hurricane Katrina exposed the devastating results of not having an effective national system to prepare for and respond to natural or man-made disasters, or terrorist attacks. This amendment will do much to begin to build such a system. It will reverse the Department’s misguided decision to separate those who are supposed to prepare for disasters from those who are supposed to respond to them; and it authorizes increased funds for FEMA over the next three years. I am disappointed that provisions in our Committee’s bill that would have provided communities that fall victim to catastrophic disasters like Katrina and funding to help achieve interoperable communications were not included in the final agreement. But I believe, if this amendment stays intact, it represents an important step forward in our nation’s preparedness

A summary of the agreement, most of which mirrors the Collins-Lieberman FEMA bill, is as follows:

FEMA becomes a distinct entity within DHS – as are the US Coast Guard and the Secret Service – and is therefore protected from future reorganizations by DHS.

The Administrator of FEMA is the principal advisor to the President for emergency management. The language is modeled after the Joint Chiefs of Staff language.

The Administrator has authority to report directly to Congress and may be designated as Cabinet level at the President’s discretion during disasters.

Reunites Preparedness and Response with FEMA so that the Administrator is responsible for all phases of emergency management (preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation).

Stricter qualification requirements for Administrator of FEMA.

Stronger Regional focus whereby FEMA would work closely and consistently with appropriate state and
local governments, as well as private sector and non-governmental entities for planning emergency operations

Requires the administrator to appoint a Disability Coordinator to ensure that the needs of the disabled are taken into account in emergency planning and operations.

It strengthens personnel at FEMA by enabling the organization to recruit and retain skilled employees

Strengthens programs with in FEMA, for example, by requiring FEMA to improve its information technology systems and requiring FEMA to provide technical assistance for evacuation to state and local governments.

It creates a system for ensuring that FEMA is engaged in appropriate planning, training and exercise programs with its counterparts at the federal, state and local levels. It also requires that FEMA establish specific performance measurements against which to measure progress in planning, training and exercises towards establishing readiness.

Establishes a national disaster recovery strategy to assist with the recovery from future catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina.

Requires the FEMA Administrator to appoint a Disability Coordinator to ensure that individuals with disabilities are properly addressed in emergency preparedness and disaster relief.

Establishes within the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children a center for locating children separated from their families after a disaster.

Establishes a voluntary registry to help reunite families separated by a disaster.

Requires a number of provisions that will help prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.