Strong criticism of the response to hurricane Katrina is leading to suggestions by some lawmakers that the primary U.S. government agency responsible for handling emergencies should be separated from the large Department of Homeland Security created after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
When the huge Department of Homeland Security was created in the wake of the unprecedented 2001 terrorist attacks, what had been the autonomous Federal Emergency Management Agency was included in the massive reorganization.
FEMA was not without its problems, but the hope was that America's ability to respond to emergencies would be improved. In addition, most of the attention was focused on how to deal with potential new terrorist attacks.
Few imagined that the first major test for FEMA would come from what could be the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history and the devastation of a major U.S. city.
Now, lawmakers signal they will be taking a close look at the problems that caused a delay in a strong response to the crisis along the Gulf coast.
House Republican majority leader Tom DeLay says Congress will examine how the relief effort was handled and, in his words, what kind of reorganization might be needed so that decisions are made more quickly.
Republican Congressman Michael Burgess of Texas, where thousands of evacuees from New Orleans are ending up, points to bureaucracy he says hampered a more effective response. "Trying to get assets and food and supplies to where they are needed has been too laborious, it has taken too many steps, and we need to eliminate those barriers now and get those assets where they are needed," he said.
Republican Congressman Roy Blunt underscores the importance of learning lessons from the situation in New Orleans. "Hard lessons have been learned, tragic lessons have been learned I hope, but I hope lessons have been learned that we have to respond more quickly, we have to respond in the right ways and be sure our priorities are right," he said.
President Bush's acknowledgement that relief and rescue operations were not acceptable unleashed a wave of new criticism and calls for FEMA to be removed from the Department of Homeland Security.
Republican [Florida] Congressman Mark Foley urges a top-to-bottom review of FEMA operations, saying the agency is stuck in what he calls a top-heavy bureaucracy. He will introduce legislation to remove FEMA from the homeland security department.
New Jersey Democrat Bill Pascrell says there are no excuses for what he calls [incompetent] relief operations. He describes FEMA as dysfunctional, asserting that it can't carry out its responsibilities effectively within a larger Department of Homeland Security focused on terrorism rather than natural disasters.
But Republican Congressman Christopher Shays, who chairs a committee that oversees emergency preparedness, says now is not the time to point fingers of blame. "The time to look at what could have been done better or what we should have done is not today, it's not tomorrow, it's not the next day. It has got to be totally to concentrate on how we help these folks in Louisiana, Mississippi and surrounding areas, how we can help them and then we can look later," he said.
In the face of tough criticism from the media and others this past week, FEMA Director Michael Brown had this defense of his agency. "This is an ongoing disaster. This disaster did not end the day [hurricane] Katrina made landfall. We had pre-positioned men, equipment, supplies, truckloads, caravans, search and rescue teams, all of those, to move in as soon as it was safe to do so," he said.
Mr. Brown declined, during an ABC Television interview this week, to respond directly to a statement by the local head of emergency operations in New Orleans who described FEMA's coordination efforts as a national disgrace.
As politics plays more and more of a role in the debate, one lawmaker (Democratic Congresswoman Diane Watson, has already called for a congressional inquiry into the government's response to the hurricane emergency.
Once Congress reconvenes next week, the heads of various congressional committees are expected to lose no time in arranging hearings.