Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has unveiled a plan to overhaul U.S. disaster response operations in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated vast stretches of the U.S. Gulf Coast last August. Chertoff spoke as portions of a forthcoming congressional report were released alleging gross federal mismanagement in preparing for and responding to Katrina.
Secretary Chertoff says Hurricane Katrina exposed deficiencies and weaknesses in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, that require urgent attention.
"Katrina was clearly one of the most devastating storms to strike American soil," he said. "The scope of the damage was unprecedented. Katrina displaced an estimated 770,000 people, and damaged or destroyed an estimated 300,000 homes. And the size and scope of this disaster, although it was obviously very unusual, reflects the scale of the capabilities we have to be able to deploy."
The homeland security chief was addressing a gathering of emergency responders outside Washington. He said FEMA must be able to respond swiftly and effectively to all disasters, whether natural or man-made. He said local and state entities will always serve as first-responders when catastrophe strikes, but that the federal government has a critical role to play in mobilizing manpower and supplies on a large scale.
A draft report from a special congressional committee obtained by news organizations accuses federal, state and local governments of failing to anticipate the devastation Katrina would cause, and mounting a slow and chaotic response. The final report is to be released later this week. In a separate report released Monday, government auditors detailed mismanagement of federal hurricane relief funds, as well as fraud by hundreds of people who collected benefits to which they were not entitled.
Secretary Chertoff says change is on the way.
"Our first step for strengthening FEMA will be to create a 21st century logistics management system," he said. "In effect, we are building a command-and-control structure that will allow FEMA to ensure supplies get to the people that need them the most. If you cannot meet the needs of your customers, then you are failing at your job. And FEMA's customers - really FEMA's wards - are the disaster victims."
Before disaster relief can be distributed, victims must be identified. Chertoff says he wants FEMA to have the capacity to register 200,000 people a day for aid and assistance. To that end, he said the agency will upgrade its information and communications systems.
Meanwhile, a federal judge is allowing FEMA to stop paying hotel bills for some 12,000 families made homeless during last year's hurricane season. FEMA says the families will still be eligible for federal assistance, but the agency will no longer pay hotel bills directly. The evacuees - some of whom have moved to shelters in recent days - had sought judicial intervention to prevent FEMA from implementing its decision.