Senators, panel share Katrina reform recommendations

U.S. senators and the heads of two top federal watchdog agencies shared final recommendations yesterday on reforming government disaster-response operations after Hurricane Katrina.

The federal government needs a Cabinet-level official, or possibly the vice president, to coordinate federal response and get federal decision-makers’ attention, said David Walker, comptroller general of the United States and head of the Government Accountability Office.

The government also needs someone coordinating frontline federal response on the ground and contracting officials in affected areas to ensure contracting goes as it should, Walker said.

The federal government must improve its use of information technology on many fronts to improve disaster response and recovery, said Richard Skinner, inspector general at the Homeland Security Department. His office is seeing where data-sharing practices can be improved to strengthen interagency collaboration, a major weakness.

The two men spoke at a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

“Information management is a recurring problem that requires a long-term solution,” Skinner said. The IG office suggested building a common information management system to integrate and disseminate disaster information. The information would include incident reports, contact information, duty logs and resources.

The lack of interoperable communications equipment stymied much of the response effort, Skinner said. His office will soon release a new report, “A Review of DHS’ Progress in Adopting and Enforcement Equipment Standards for First Responders,” which found that DHS had still not adopted any standards for interoperable communications equipment as of this month.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency still does not use available technology and data sources to verify property losses, Skinner said. FEMA lacks safeguards against fraud and capabilities to improve service delivery, he said. It should also create an automated system that pulls out needed management information and statistics from federal and state operations reports.

The United States needs better planning, training and exercising at all levels of government to respond to disasters, Skinner said. He said the federal government must find a way to dedicate federal funds to those activities so departments need not take money from other programs to pay for them.

The question of whether separating FEMA from DHS would improve its performance arose, with passionate supporters for and against it. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), a vocal supporter of first responders, recommended that FEMA become an independent agency with direct lines of communication to the president.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the committee’s chairwoman, disagreed, saying that would move the agency away from an all-hazards approach. Skinner agreed with Collins, saying that moving FEMA out of DHS “would be a major mistake” which would inhibit preparedness activities and remove a lot of synergy.

“The quality of FEMA’s leadership and the adequacy of its resources have more to do with its ultimate success than whether or not it is in DHS,” Walker said.

The federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina last year ignored the hard experience from Hurricane Andrew in 1993, lawmakers and panel members agreed.

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” Walker said. “We should have done better. We should have learned from the lessons of the past.”

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