FEMA IT problems predated Katrina

Emergency Preparedness and Response

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A year before Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast, information technology used by the Homeland Security Department to support disaster management was so disconnected and inadequate that employees needed to develop ad hoc, often paper-based alternatives to supplement them, DHS' inspector general wrote last week in a scathing report.

"Because of the unintegrated IT environment, during the 2004 hurricanes, [DHS'] systems did not effectively handle increased workloads, were not adaptable to change and lacked needed capabilities," said Richard Skinner, DHS' IG, in the report. Those weaknesses led to operational inefficiencies that hurt the delivery of crucial services and supplies.

The report contains the findings of an audit of the IT systems that DHS' Emergency Preparedness and Response (EP&R) Directorate uses to support incident management. EP&R contains the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which members of Congress, state and local response teams, and the public have excoriated for its management of Katrina response and recovery efforts.

According to the report, the most pressing problem is that EP&R's IT systems cannot share information with one another; federal, state and local first responders; or the National Incident Management System, which coordinates those systems. The systems can't allocate essential services and commodities or generate useful and timely reports about ongoing operations.

Bruce Baughman, director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, confirmed those findings. In a conversation shortly after Katrina hit about DHS' disaster preparedness, Baughman said FEMA did not have the logistical wherewithal to handle major disasters. Specifically, he said FEMA could not meet Alabama's needs for water, ice and food after Hurricane Dennis, which hit in early July.

Barry West, FEMA's chief information officer, criticized the audit. He said it is full of obvious inaccuracies because FEMA could not have done its job without having functional IT capabilities.

"The overall tone of the report is negative...and does not acknowledge the highly performing, well-managed and [well]-staffed IT systems supporting FEMA incident response and recovery," West wrote.

The IG's office rebutted, "While we state in our report that EP&R was able to get through the 2004 hurricanes...we also recognize that FEMA's accomplishments were not necessarily because of its IT systems, but often in spite of them."

The IG's report is right on the money, said Steve Cooper, senior vice president and CIO of the American Red Cross who left his position as DHS' CIO in April, in an e-mail statement.

Cooper said that although West defended FEMA's performance, West and his team "continue to face indifference from their leadership toward making the necessary changes, and resistance from program officials who do not want to give up control of their individual programs. This behavior is impeding those in FEMA who want to do the right things, want to integrate systems to further the mission of FEMA and know what needs to be done."

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said he also agrees with the IG's assessment, and he will look at how the IT problems enumerated in the report affected the response to Katrina.

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