The standing-room-only hearing chamber contained a large representation of Code Pink activists advocating increased support for rebuilding efforts. Upon walking in, Ray Nagin, a witness and the mayor of New Orleans since 2002, showed support by flashing a peace sign to the activists.
Chair Mary Landrieu (D-LA) opened the hearing by restating the mission for the ad hoc subcommittee, which was to build a "better disaster response mechanism." She kept her comments to a minimum, and expressed her frustration with the sluggishness of FEMA funds and four- and five-fold underestimations of rebuilding costs. Ranking Member Ted Stevens (R-AK) expressed his thanks for holding the hearing, but had no other opening remarks.
The first panel consisted of Ray Nagin, Kevin Davis, President of St. Tammany Parish, and Henry Rodriguez, President of St. Bernard Parish. Although the local officials each provided separate, unique testimony, all three had similar messages of frustration with FEMA officials. Citing a host of anecdotes from their interactions with agency representatives, they affirmed that the FEMA workforce had widespread and frequent turnover and it was almost always populated with non-local staff who were unfamiliar with the dynamics of the situation. Davis described FEMA officials as typically "inexperienced and not knowledgeable." These conditions, he said, led to reversed rulings and contradictions on the part of FEMA that would delay or stop rebuilding efforts. In his testimony, Rodriguez painted a particularly disturbing picture of the troubles facing the Gulf Coast. Of the parish's 27,000 homes in August 2005, only five were able to be lived in after the storms. Nearly two years later, less than half of the former population has returned to St. Bernard Parish. "We're still working out of trailers," he said.
Chair Landrieu began the question and answer session by focusing her inquiry on the status of utilities in each of the jurisdictions. All three officials said that water, sewer, and electricity were functioning at near 100%. However, all three warned that the utilities were all on shaky ground because they were using alternative temporary solutions to provide services. "We are still dependent on vacuum trucks" to transport sewage said Rodriguez. He cited the vacuum truck spending bill at $60 million so far. "That $60 million could have been spent on rebuilding processing plants," he said. "Something's wrong." Responding to another of Landrieu's questions, Nagin said that he and FEMA officials would get into arguments about pre-Katrina conditions and would struggle to prove the functionality of infrastructure before Katrina. Davis echoed similar concerns when he rhetorically asked, "why do I have to prove to anyone that I was totally destroyed? The parish is totally devastated." To this, Landrieu agreed that there were problems in FEMA. "FEMA monitors their own appeals," she said, there is "no objective, independent process" to reconcile differences between federal and local claims.
During his question and answer session, Ranking Member Stevens said "what you need is an arbitration process" modeled after the 1964 earthquake in Alaska. Landrieu concurred and Rodriguez added that he thought Congress should follow up on that. Senator Mark Pryor (D-AR) asked if the struggles with FEMA were bureaucratic difficulties or actual resistance on the part of the agency. Nagin said it was the former. Pryor then asked if there had been a full-time FEMA team in the region over the last 22 months. "Every couple of months we seem to have deal with a new FEMA representative," said Nagin. Rodriguez added that "the only thing consistent about FEMA is inconsistency" and advocated a change in command of the relief management. He went on to say that after hurricane Betsy in 1965, a similarly destructive storm, the Army Corps of Engineers came to help. In "September '65, Betsy hit, by December we were enjoying Christmas," Rodriguez said.
The second panel of witnesses featured Colonel Jeff Smith, Executive Director of the Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, Bryan McDonald, Executive Director of the Mississippi Governor's Office of Recovery and Renewal, and Mark Merritt, former FEMA official and current Senior Vice President of Response and Recovery at James Lee Witt Associates. Smith began by citing another anecdote of stalled reconstruction efforts due to contradictory rulings by FEMA, which caused administrative backup for over a year. McDonald continued with similar frustrations of administrative backup. "FEMA has generated more than 14,000 PWs," he said. He advocated that "[we] address changes to leave this process better than we found it." Merritt compared some of his experience with his disaster management in the 1990s when he worked at FEMA. He stated that there are "not enough experienced people on FEMA." This is "not fair to parishes or staff," he said.
Stevens opened the question and answer period by mostly stating his own thoughts on the crisis. "We're dealing with a disaster the size of France and Germany. We need a command structure that is different than FEMA here." Stevens finished by saying, "you need a new Marshall Plan, not FEMA." In her remarks Landrieu addressed the effectiveness of current fund allocation. Smith said that "at least 75 percent of PWs are grossly undervalued." Landrieu emphasized Congress' need to know how large allocations are underestimated.
The third and final panel featured James Walke, Director of the Public
Assistance Division of the Disaster Assistance Directorate at FEMA.
In his testimony, Walke described the process of the PW process and
reported that 88% of PWs in Louisiana and 61% of PWs in Mississippi
have been obligated. In her question period, Landrieu questioned the
significance of the statistics by asking what percentage of the PWs
were agreed to not only by FEMA officials, but by state and local
officials as well. Walke responded by saying that most were concurred
with by state and local officials. Out of over 30,000 PWs in Louisiana,
only 200 have been appealed, he said. Landrieu countered by saying
that small towns have tremendous pressure to accept any federal money
provided to them. She continued to press Walke during the question
and answer period about third-party arbitration, improving new infrastructure,
and staffing protocol. Much of Walke's testimony was left for later
submission of official written testimony.
Lieberman acknowledged the past failures of FEMA, noting that Hurricane Katrina dealt a blow to the American public's confidence in their government's ability to protect them, but stated that he was "confident that FEMA today is much stronger than it was on 9/11 or after Katrina." He continued to praise the newly strengthened FEMA, mentioning the committee's thorough investigation and report after Hurricanes Rita and Katrina that led to overhauls of FEMA.
Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME) seconded Lieberman's comments in a showing of bipartisan faith in FEMA's new management. She stated that FEMA is indeed "obviously" prepared for the 2007 Hurricane season. Both Collins and Lieberman expressed confusion at calls for FEMA to be removed from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). "I have been troubled recently to hear that there are some people who are still calling for FEMA to be taken out of the Department of Homeland Security. I believe that would be a big mistake," he stated. Collins pointed out that the committee "conducted the most in-depth investigation" of FEMA after Hurricane Katrina, including 24 hearings and over 800 interviews. Collins stated her belief that the detailed report and ensuing Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 (S.3721) have properly overhauled FEMA to allow it to deal more effectively and efficiently with national emergencies within the frame of the DHS. There is now "unified command across all levels of government," she said, while noting that there is still "a lot of work to do."
Collins briefly mentioned the past failures of FEMA, including "colossal leadership failure at all levels," and "failure to evacuate those who could not evacuate themselves." She also noted the extreme amount of fraud and abuse, estimating $1 billion was improperly distributed. R. David Paulison, Administrator of FEMA, cited FEMA's new web-based system that minimizes identity fraud, allowing only entitled victims to claim federal money. "You are not going to stop 100 percent of the fraud, but we can stop a lot of it" he stated.
Paulison went on to describe the agency's new proactive approach. "We are not going to wait for a state to ask for assistance," he stated, while reassuring the committee that FEMA will also not step on a state's authority. He mentioned that shortly after the recent tornados that devastated Greensburg, Kansas, FEMA sent in supplies and personnel before the area was declared a disaster area. "Why wait for the paperwork to be signed before we move in," he questioned.
Lieberman noted the relative small scale of Paulison's example of the Greensburg tornados, and asked about FEMA's ability to deal with "a natural catastrophe like Katrina" as opposed to smaller natural disasters. Paulison mentioned new evacuation plans, "particularly in the gulf states," would help greatly with another devastating hurricane. He noted that shelter and transportation gaps are being identified and fixed, and "pre-landfall evaluations" will allow funds to be used in areas before the storm hitting land. He also cited FEMA's greatly improved logistics and ability to track personnel and supplies.
Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) stated that "FEMA is stronger today than it was when Katrina hit," but questioned whether it is "strong enough to respond to a catastrophic disaster." She compared Hurricane Katrina to a disaster of "biblical proportions," and asked Paulison about how FEMA has improved to better deal with major disasters. Paulison cited a unified command system, new leadership including eight regional directors, and an improved ability to track people and goods. "Our logistics system is light years ahead of where we were three years ago," he continued, adding that FEMA is trying to "tap into third party systems," such as FedEx, to keep track of supplies. He mentioned that FEMA has started to plan for possible future catastrophic events, including a major earthquake in the New Madrid fault zone area. He also cited housing as a current weakness, saying "FEMA should not be in the long term housing business, HUD should be."
Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN), asked if National Guard strength is diminished, especially considering ongoing wars in the Middle East. Michael P. Jackson, Deputy Secretary of the DHS, fielded the question. "We have found, and the National Guard leadership believes that they will be able to adequately support [DHS and FEMA]," Jackson answered.
The committee was impressed with the overhaul of DHS and FEMA. They
seemed confident that FEMA is prepared to deal with major disasters,
and at least partially prepared to deal with catastrophic disasters.
"I would say this has been a very reassuring report," Lieberman
Sources: Hearing testimony.
Contributed by Paul Schramm, 2007 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern and Sargon de Jesus, 2007 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on August 20, 2007.