FEMA IT problems predated Katrina

Emergency Preparedness and Response

Related Links

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.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.

Featured

  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group