Magazine article National Defense

Crisis Management

Magazine article National Defense

Crisis Management

Article excerpt

FEMA chief promises new, improved disaster response

Two years ago this month, Hurricane Katrina made landfall, destroying both the Gulf Coast and the reputation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when it failed to carry out its mission of coordinating disaster relief.

The Department of Homeland Security agency since then has been the butt of jokes on late night talk shows, a punching bag on Capitol Hill and the "most ridiculed agency in government," according to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Revamping FEMA has been the responsibility of its administrator, R. David Paulison, who took over the agency in the weeks following Katrina.

"FEMA is a new organization," Paulison told National Defense. "I hate to say this, but it's almost like you're going to have to have a major event to show that we have changed."

Key to restoring its reputation will be the timely delivery of emergency supplies to victims of natural or man-made disasters.

When Katrina struck, "there was no tracking system in place. Once the truck left the warehouses, they were just lost as far as we were concerned," he said. Trucks carrying meals ready to eat, medical supplies, water and ice showed up at the wrong places and the wrong time.

Congress and rhe Bush administration, both of whom critics said failed to adequately fund the agency after 9/11 and then buried it in layers of bureaucracy within the Department of Homeland Security, have now boosted FEMA's budget and passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 to set the agency straight.

It has used these funds to purchase 20,000 global positioning system units to track trailers carrying commodities on a giant screen at the agency's headquarters in Washington, Paulison said. FEMA is attempting to take supply-chain management principles - common in the private sector - and apply them to the agency, which was still using paper maps to track supplies in September 2005, he added.

The Defense Logistics Agency has lent its time and personnel to help FEMA improve the new commodity tracking system. It also hired away one of rhe DLAs top officers to lead its efforts.

Next will be adding "third-party logistics" into the mix, Paulison said. "Instead of doing everything ourselves, let's use systems that are out there" such as UPS, FedEx and large trucking companies, he said. "That's where we're heading."

"We should have enough for an initial surge, but then have the private sector move it with the second, third, fourth day deliveries," he said.

DHS Deputy Inspector General Matt Jadacki told Waxman's committee in a hearing that FEMA is making improvements in its commodity tracking system, but whether it will achieve the goal of delivering 100 percent of requirements within 72 hours is "untested." His office is reviewing the improvements.

"It is essential that FEMA possess the capability to track assets real-time, across federal, state and local organizations," Jadacki said.

Along with getting commodities in the right place at the right time, Paulison said the next catastrophe will see more FEMA personnel on the ground.

For the first time, 95 percent of its positions are filled. At the time of Katrina, 500 of its allotted 2,400 slots were unfilled and only three of the 10 regional directors were in place. Another 500 quit after rhe 2005 hurricane season.

Paulison said he cut down on the amount of bureaucracy that slowed down the hiring process. Regional directors can hire direcdy widiout having to go through headquarters. The agency is reaching out to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, recruiting at job fairs and ensuring candidates receive job offers as soon as they are put on die qualified list. …

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