by Rob Margetta, Congressional Quarterly

Dec 5, 2008

One of the most drawn-out debates in the Department of Homeland Security’s short history — whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be restored to its former status as an independent entity — had some fuel added to its fires Thursday, by a group of experts who share the same, unequivocal stance: “FEMA should stay right where it is under DHS leadership,” said Jena Baker McNeill, homeland security policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, which hosted a lecture on the agency’s future.

McNeill was joined by panel members hoping to raise a counterpoint to other key voices in security that have called for the agency’s removal. Citing reasons ranging from budgeting to stakeholder relations, the advocates of an independent FEMA include Clinton-era FEMA head James Lee Witt, and most recently the International Association of Emergency Managers. Like all discussion of DHS leadership, the FEMA debate has intensified as the presidential transition draws closer.

Thursday’s panelists argued that the movement to pull FEMA out is rooted less in updated assessments of how the agency would be better off on its own than in personality and policy differences, along with an outmoded perception of FEMA that dates back to the Hurricane Katrina response debacle.

“FEMA for all intents and purposes, was a four-letter word and became a fall guy,” said Rich Cooper, a principal at the homeland security consulting firm Catalyst Partners.

FEMA certainly made its share of mistakes, Cooper said, but Katrina involved “a catastrophic failure” at several levels of state and local government that were unequipped to deal with what he called the first evacuation of a major American city since the fall of Richmond in the Civil War.

“Unfortunately, FEMA’s got some scarring,” he said.

Cooper said a typical reaction after such a disastrous situation is to want things to go back to the way they were — and FEMA was independent prior to Katrina. While he called some of those advocating separation his colleagues and friends, he also said, “I find the posture and the argument behind FEMA independence to be short-sighted.”

Emergency management is a key part of homeland security, and FEMA’s 2008 hurricane response efforts in Texas, as well as its reaction to the recent California wildfires, showed much better coordination, he said.

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