Bush proposes shuffling disaster response among other departments
Acknowledging government’s failures during Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration has advocated giving federal agencies from the Pentagon to the Department of Justice a greater role in disaster response.
If adopted through both legislation and executive order, the recommendations would reverse some of the steps taken after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to centralize responsibility for responding to natural disasters or terrorist attacks at the Department of Homeland Security. The plan could also require the White House to play a larger coordinating role in future disasters.
Some critics worry that diffusing responsibilities among agencies could leave no one clearly in charge and not produce results.
“This may simply be rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” Michael Greenberger, a law professor and domestic security expert at the University of Maryland, tells The New York Times.
The Homeland Security Department and FEMA will continue to be the lead federal player in disaster response efforts, according to the blueprint proposed by Frances Fragos Townsend, President Bush’s domestic security adviser. But the Pentagon may take over the commanding role during catastrophes “of extraordinary scope and nature,” like a nuclear attack or “multiple simultaneous terrorist attacks causing a breakdown in civil society,” the report says, citing examples even more extreme than Katrina.
The military will be expected to provide logistical support, including sending troops to deliver supplies or rescue victims.
The Justice Department, which now shares responsibility for disaster law enforcement with DHS, would be primarily charged with that even in less severe disasters. The reassignment was attributed to the slow and disorganized response to lawlessness in New Orleans.
The Department of Health and Human Services would take back from FEMA the disaster medical teams it supervised prior to the establishment of DHS. The Department of Housing and Urban Development would be expected to find temporary housing for victims, a duty also now handled by FEMA, which Townsend says placed too much emphasis on buying travel trailers and mobile homes rather than on finding apartments or other options.