Chertoff vows to fix response to disasters

Government auditors say millions in aid for hurricane victims was lost to fraud and mismanagement.

Published February 14, 2006

WASHINGTON - Amid new and more detailed criticisms of the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency handled Hurricane Katrina, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Monday unveiled an agency revamp to improve federal disaster response.

But experts said the modest proposals weren't exactly new, and the bad news kept coming.

While Chertoff was touting his plan in Virginia, government auditors in Washington issued a report concluding that millions in disaster aid for Katrina victims was lost to fraud and mismanagement. On Wednesday, a House committee expects to release a blistering 600-page report that blames government-wide ineptitude for mishandling hurricane relief.

Chertoff will appear today before a Senate committee investigating the Katrina response. He is likely to defend his agency in part by discussing changes to FEMA that include adding to the payroll and streamlining the process for hiring private vendors.

But disaster management experts, some of whom used to work at FEMA, said many of Chertoff's new policies and procedures previously were used by the federal agency but were abandoned through the years as leadership changed or money dried up.

"What's new?" asked Ellen Gordon, former director of Iowa's emergency management agency, who is now at the Naval Postgraduate School at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security in California. "I am looking at this list and there doesn't appear to be anything new."

Katrina, a powerful Category 3 hurricane, killed more than 1,300 people along the Gulf Coast, displaced hundreds of thousands of others, and caused tens of billions of dollars in damage.

"I want to be clear, as the secretary of homeland security I am accountable and accept responsibility to the performance of the entire department, good and bad," Chertoff said. "I also have the responsibility to fix what went wrong."

Changes include stationing employees at emergency shelters to register victims for aid, creating teams to quickly relay information back to headquarters and tracking supply trucks by satellite. He wants most changes made by the June 1 start of the hurricane season.

The proposals do not address the fundamental question that has arisen since Hurricane Katrina hit: Should FEMA remain part of Chertoff's department, a sprawling bureaucratic agency that also responds to terrorism, or return to its previous role as an independent agency?

"None of this addresses the central failing," said George Haddow, FEMA's former deputy chief of staff who now runs an emergency management company outside Washington. "We don't know who is in charge of federal response."

FEMA was absorbed into the U.S. Department of Homeland Security after the Sept. 11 attacks, a maneuver that some say has meant less attention to disaster relief, more focus on terrorism and less money for preparedness and mitigation.

Several bills have been introduced in Congress, including one by Rep. Mark Foley, a West Palm Beach Republican, that would separate FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security.

"I wouldn't expect the secretary to be the one to say FEMA needs to be removed from his department, but FEMA's mission is clearly hindered by the DHS bureaucracy," Foley said Monday.

Chertoff wants a 10 percent increase in FEMA's budget for the next fiscal year, including money to upgrade its Emergency Alert System, increase staff, improve information technology and logistics management and upgrade emergency communications capabilities.

"If they don't have the money or the clout, you can list what needs to be done but it doesn't matter," said Martha Madden, former secretary of Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality and a national security and environmental consultant. "You're going to have the same situation all over again."

Also on Monday, preliminary reports by the Government Accountability Office and Homeland Security's inspector general show that overcharges, poor accounting and abuses will take "months or years" to rectify.

Problems include payments for $375-a-day beachfront condos in Panama City, 10,777 trailers that were stuck in mud and unusable and handing $2,000 debit cards to people who gave phony Social Security numbers. Some of them used the money for such items as a $450 tattoo.

One report found that up to 900,000 of the 2.5-million applicants who received aid under the emergency cash assistance program - which included the debit cards given to evacuees - based their requests on duplicate or invalid Social Security numbers, or false addresses and names.

FEMA recognizes it "made many, many mistakes" and is working on improvement, Homeland Security inspector general Richard Skinner said. "But they're not where they should be. In some cases, the government will have little legal recourse to recoup payments."