WASHINGTON —Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., marked the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina Friday by pressing the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to continue moving forward to ensure that “our nation is capable of helping survivors recover from disasters.”
In a letter to FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate, the Senators detailed FEMA’s successes and the work that remains to be done.
“Today there is no doubt that the FEMA that responded to Hurricane Katrina has been replaced by a far more capable, professional, and competent organization,” the Senators wrote. “FEMA and DHS must continue to build on this progress. And while FEMA’s ability to respond to disasters has doubtlessly been improved, we are nonetheless concerned that more progress is needed before FEMA, and the federal government, more broadly, are adequately prepared to assist citizens, as well as state, local, and tribal governments, in recovering from large disasters.”
In 2005 and 2006, the Committee investigated the failed response at all levels of government to Hurricane Katrina and issued the definitive report, “Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared.” Since then, the Committee has held dozens of hearings to track the progress of the Gulf Coast recovery.
Text of the letter is below:
August 28, 2009
The Honorable W. Craig Fugate
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Department of Homeland Security
Washington, D.C. 20472
Dear Administrator Fugate:
August 29th marks the fourth anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina. It was one of the largest natural disasters in our nation’s history, a catastrophe causing devastating damage, lost lives, damaged property, displaced citizens, and disruption to our economy. This catastrophe turned the lives of many thousands of survivors upside down – in some cases robbing them of family, friends, homes, jobs, communities, and neighborhoods – stripping them of almost all aspects of life as they had known it.
After investigating the failed response to Hurricane Katrina, the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (the Committee) issued a report in April 2006 that itemized failures at all levels of government. At the federal level, the Committee found that both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were unprepared for catastrophic disasters. The Committee recommended replacing FEMA with a new, stronger, more robust federal response agency capable of working in a more coordinated manner with state, local, and tribal governments to prepare for future disasters. As a result of the Committee’s work, Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act of 2006 (the Post-Katrina Act), which President Bush signed into law in October 2006.
The Post-Katrina Act, which implemented many of the recommendations from the Committee’s investigation, created a new FEMA with responsibilities, missions, capabilities, and resources far exceeding those that FEMA had at the time of Hurricane Katrina. As a result, today there is no doubt that the FEMA that responded to Hurricane Katrina has been replaced by a far more capable, professional, and competent organization. In April 2008, DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner testified that FEMA is stronger now than it ever had been in its history as a result of its placement inside DHS, the implementation of the Post-Katrina Act, and other improvements made as a result of lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina. The hard working personnel at FEMA and DHS deserve thanks for their dedication and work in improving this critical federal agency.
FEMA and DHS must continue to build on this progress. And while FEMA’s ability to respond to disasters has doubtlessly been improved, we are nonetheless concerned that more progress is needed before FEMA, and the federal government more broadly, is adequately prepared to assist citizens, as well as state, local, and tribal governments, in recovering from large disasters.
In the case of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the scope of destruction created large-scale recovery and rebuilding challenges at all levels of government. It is clear that the federal government was unprepared to adequately assist in the recovery, which has lead to a process that has moved too slowly and has left too much work to be done. Today, thousands of survivors remain displaced, while many of those who have returned to the Gulf Coast have yet to reclaim the livelihoods that they lost. On this fourth anniversary, we must ensure that they are not forgotten and that our nation is capable of helping survivors recover from disasters.
We appreciate the recent steps that FEMA has taken to overcome ongoing bureaucratic barriers to recovery along the Gulf Coast, such as establishing Joint FEMA/State Expediting Teams and the Unified Public Assistance Project Decision Team, which has helped to obligate more than $1 billion in funds for public assistance projects along the Gulf Coast since January of this year. The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act also provided billions of additional dollars to help further accelerate the recovery along the Gulf Coast.
The federal government though, led by FEMA, must improve its preparedness to assist in future recoveries after a large-scale disaster. FEMA has yet to complete the National Disaster Recovery Strategy required by the Post-Katrina Act. A comprehensive strategy is essential to providing the kinds of support for recovery our citizens need and deserve. It is also clear that the Stafford Act and its implementing regulations, which governs most federal response and recovery activities, was not intended to meet the recovery challenges presented to individuals and communities by catastrophic disasters.
In an effort to improve FEMA’s preparedness for recovery from future disasters, we ask that you answer the following questions within 45 days:
1. What lessons do you believe our government can learn about recovery and rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina? How will you implement those lessons?
2. The Post-Katrina Act required that FEMA, in coordination with other relevant federal agencies, complete a National Disaster Recovery Strategy. This strategy is now more than two years overdue and FEMA has not yet provided an estimate of when it will complete the strategy. What is your projected completion date for the recovery strategy? Please provide a FEMA staffing plan for completion of the recovery strategy.
3. During your confirmation process, you stated that FEMA must take a more active and stronger leadership role to ensure that the full support of the federal government is brought to bear in support of states recovering from disasters. How do you plan to do this? Do you believe the federal government needs to develop a National Recovery Framework, similar to the National Response Framework used in responding to disasters, so that the nation has a blueprint for recovery from future disasters?
4. Many have complained that bureaucratic requirements at FEMA slow recovery programs. During your confirmation process, you stated that FEMA’s disaster assistance programs could benefit from a fresh look that could identify opportunities to streamline and reduce red tape and that, if confirmed, you would conduct a review of underlying authorities and look for opportunities to improve administrative policies and procedures. What is your timetable for completing this review? Moreover, what, if any, changes to the Stafford Act do you believe are necessary to strengthen FEMA’s recovery programs after a catastrophe?
5. The Post-Katrina Act required the completion of a national disaster housing strategy. FEMA produced a draft of this strategy in July 2008 and the final strategy in January 2009. This strategy, however, created a National Disaster Housing Taskforce to address many important details that were missing, including developing a housing concept of operations. FEMA, however, to date, has not yet posted job listings to hire staff to work full-time on this taskforce, instead thus far staffing the taskforce with FEMA employees that already have other responsibilities. The taskforce has yet to complete its work. What is your timeline for hiring full-time staff for this taskforce, completing the work of the taskforce, and ensuring full implementation of national disaster housing strategy?
Thank you for your attention to these important matters. We look forward to your response and continuing to work with you to improve our government’s capacity to effectively assist citizens, as well as state, local, and tribal governments, in recovering from disasters.
Joseph I. Lieberman Susan M. Collins Chairman Ranking Member