Ex-FEMA director criticizes reorganization

James Lee Witt says putting the agency under Homeland Security will slow its response and funding after hurricanes.

Associated Press
Published May 29, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - Putting the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the Department of Homeland Security has hampered its ability to deal with hurricanes and other disasters, former FEMA Director James Lee Witt claims.

Emergency managers and other state and local officials attending March's National Hurricane Conference applauded Witt when he urged that FEMA again be made a separate agency, saying it still could focus on all hazards, whether terrorist attacks, earthquakes, floods or killer storms.

"The emphasis is not there like it used to be," Witt said. "Putting FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security has minimized their effectiveness in responding, in planning and training, the national hurricane program, everything."

Witt also urged more spending on the hurricane program, which is facing potential cuts, and said the agency has been too slow in passing on federal emergency funding to where it is needed.

"Put the money down to the state and local government," he said. "Let them do their job. They know what to do."

Local officials in Florida also have complained about delays in getting reimbursement for millions of dollars spent for debris removal and other cleanup costs.

The agency, meanwhile, has come under fire for distributing $30-million in assistance to about 13,000 residents of Miami-Dade County although not hit by hurricane force winds.

In Washington, FEMA spokeswoman Natalie Rule said there are no plans to remove the agency from Homeland Security's structure. Rather, she said, being included in the sprawling department has let FEMA respond more quickly to disasters by using Homeland Security resources like ships, planes and helicopters.

The hurricane conference's chairman, John Wilson, public safety director for Lee County, said he thought the commitment of people within the agency is more important than how it is structured.

"If that can be done with Homeland Security, good. If it can't, then maybe there's an argument to make it different," Wilson said. "If you're in an organization where your focus and your mission is blurred, then James Lee Witt has a point."

Wilson, however, said FEMA has not seemed to lack public exposure since becoming part of Homeland Security.

Rule said that in 2002, the year before FEMA merged with 21 other agencies to create the Homeland Security Department, FEMA responded to 49 major disaster declarations and provided assistance to three declared emergencies. By comparison, FEMA responded to 68 major disasters and seven emergencies in 2004 - the most in any single year in nearly a decade, Rule said.

Witt served as FEMA director under President Bill Clinton from 1993 through 2001. He now is CEO of the International Code Council in Falls Church, Va., and told the conference Florida's hurricanes last year proved that tougher building codes can reduce storm damage.