FEMA Misses Second Housing Report Deadline

THE TIMES-PICAYUNE

FEMAs slow pace in producing a strategy to house displaced disaster victims has irritated lawmakers, particularly those along the Gulf Coast. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, FEMA provided trailers for hurricane victims.

WASHINGTON — FEMA on Tuesday missed a second deadline for producing its plan, in the works since the 2005 hurricanes, for housing displaced victims of the next major American disaster.

The congressionally mandated report was supposed to be finished last June. Criticized for the delay, a top FEMA official promised at a hearing last month that it would be ready by April 1. It is now unclear when it will be done.

The overdue housing report is the latest in a string of busted deadlines that had been imposed by Congress in landmark disaster legislation passed in 2006. The law was designed to remake the nation’s disaster response and prevent a repeat of the mistakes exposed by Hurricane Katrina.

“This has ramifications much greater than south Louisiana or Mississippi or the Gulf Coast,” Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said. “This dragging the feet, incompetence and lack of focus has serious consequences for future disasters where people think they are safe and are not.”

‘New FEMA’

FEMA officials acknowledge they have fallen behind in complying with some congressional mandates since Katrina — more than 250 by their estimate — that sought to rebuild the agency. They estimate 70 percent of the tasks have been completed and 15 percent await regulatory approval.

But they also say that focusing on missed report deadlines obscures real progress the agency has made in improving on-the-ground response capabilities since its much-maligned performance in Katrina.

Drawing on White House, congressional and other governmental reviews, “New FEMA,” as they call it, is better prepared to respond to a disaster than at any time in the agency’s 29-year history, they say.

“There is a tremendous amount of stuff in place,” said Marko Bourne, FEMA’s director of policy and program analysis. “By the time we hit summer, the only thing that should be outstanding are the things that need regulatory action.”

Frustration mounts

Still, the slow pace has irritated lawmakers, particularly those along the Gulf Coast.

Last April, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, complained to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about the department’s “failure to meet numerous reporting deadlines” contained in the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which President Bush signed Oct. 4, 2006.

He listed a dozen overdue reports in a letter to Chertoff. At the time, Thompson said the committee had sent “numerous letters” to the Homeland Security Department, which oversees FEMA, but “has yet to get an adequate response.”

Chertoff sympathized, saying, “I understand your frustration.” He assured Thompson that all of the late reports were “in varying stages of internal review,” but seemed to chafe at the number of the congressional assignments — 393 required by the Department of Homeland Security in 2007.

“The very high volume of congressional reports all must be approved by the Department’s appropriate leadership team and must all receive further administration coordination,” Chertoff wrote.

FEMA’s Bourne said the agency has picked up the pace of complying with congressional mandates since it has hired new people. FEMA had about 1,800 employees in 2006. The workforce is now more than 3,100 and headed toward 4,300.

“As we gain capability, we are getting more of the harder things accomplished,” Bourne said.

Landrieu, who is chairwoman of a disaster subcommittee and a member of the Appropriations Committee, said that if the Homeland Security Department or FEMA needs additional resources to comply with congressional mandates, it should ask.

“We would be happy to give it,” she said.

‘Few simple answers’

Few overdue plans are seen as critical as housing. The federal and state governments were overwhelmed when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused major or severe damage to 204,500 homes in Louisiana. Some storm victims were housed in apartments or hotels. Others took up residence in FEMA-provided travel trailers.

Deadlines for hotel and apartment stays were repeatedly extended to contend with the large number of displaced residents. Some trailer residents began complaining about respiratory problems and unusually high levels of formaldehyde, a possible carcinogen, were detected.

At a hearing March 4 before Landrieu’s disaster subcommittee, FEMA’s acting deputy administrator, Harvey Johnson, said the delay in developing a housing strategy for future disasters was caused by disagreement within the administration about what to do about the formaldehyde in trailers.

“There are few simple answers,” Johnson said at the hearing and promised the housing strategy by April 1.

As of Tuesday, FEMA has also failed to report on a congressionally mandated “surge capacity force” of disaster specialists who would be dispatched to the scene of a calamity quickly to assess the damage and map out the initial needs on the ground.

Also past due is a report on FEMA’s strategy for helping communities recover after a disaster. The damage caused by Katrina and Rita was so widespread that the region is still struggling to regain a normal semblance of life.

FEMA’s Bourne called the “National Recovery Strategy” a “big animal” that must plan for incidents large and small. He said the agency has been working on it, but that the recovery plan can’t be completed before the unfinished housing strategy is in place.

“We needed housing strategy done,” he said. “We couldn’t get cart before the horse.”

Bill Walsh can be reached at bill.walsh@newhouse.com or (202) 383-7817.

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