National Journal recently posted their interview with DHS Secretary, Michael Chertoff where he reflects on his tenure in office while still keeping a very confident eye towards the work he is doing now and in his remaining months to strengthen the Department’s future. The entire interview is well done but there is one particular point that stands out for me –

NJ: Looking back, how do you rate the effectiveness of the department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in responding to the needs of citizens and businesses affected by the hurricanes in 2005?

Chertoff: I think that there’s one organizational structure change I have begun to talk about. I don’t know that FEMA ought to be a reconstruction agency. I think that when you get into a deep, long-standing reconstruction effort, you’re beginning to deal with issues like public health, social services, education, and housing policy. Not only are these [multi-agency] issues but they are not necessarily in the skill set of people who are at FEMA, who are really there to give immediate shelter and immediate assistance.

FEMA’s core mission is emergency management. It’s not reconstruction. We maybe need an agency or a capability to reconstruct. But maybe that should not be in FEMA, or in DHS. Maybe that should be in Health and Human Services or in Housing and Urban Development. I know that’s unusual for a secretary to give up something. I just think it’s not in the core mission. And that’s the one area where I think I would encourage someone to take a look.

Like many, I have advised the next Administration to proceed slowly in reorganizing DHS but this is one area where it makes real sense. Chertoff is right when he talks about FEMA’s core mission as ‘emergency management’ yet since the hurricanes of 2005, we have allowed a steady mission creep to occur with FEMA to involve a range of things besides ‘emergency management.’

Today on the Gulf Coast and in other communities in the US (e.g., Kansas, Tennessee, California, etc) FEMA employees will be working with state, local, tribal, NGOs, private sector members and regular citizens to aid the ‘recovery’ efforts in communities that have been struck by disasters. Those efforts involve urban planning and a range of other issues that have some intersection with emergency management but these efforts are not at the core of FEMA’s goal of being the ‘world’s preeminent emergency management agency.’

The ‘emergency management’ mission involves planning, preparing, training and responding for a range of hazards and threats. All of these challenges are difficult, but history has proven recovery to be the toughest of all post-disaster efforts. For well over a decade, FEMA had personnel and offices in Florida to support recovery operations after Hurricane Andrew struck in 1992. There is every indication that some type of FEMA/Federal presence will be on the Gulf Coast well beyond a decade to deal with many of the same issues (housing, public health, infrastructure restoration, etc.) but this time on an even larger geographic scale.

Sec. Chertoff’s comments could not come at a more interesting time. With the recent departure of Donald Powell as the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Recovery and with that Office’s charter set to expire in the next couple of months, it remains to be seen who will be the Federal lead for aiding the states ravaged by Katrina and Rita in the coming years. Certainly FEMA has some role to play with the restoration of communities in Louisiana and Mississippi but the American people are expecting FEMA to keep their eye on the ball when it comes to planning and preparing for the next ‘big one’ regardless of what shape it takes on or what location it strikes.

As we’ve learned since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, they don’t necessarily exist with the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding either. One of the biggest complaints and criticisms of the Gulf Coast Recovery Office is it had no real authority or jurisdiction to make things happen. It could be an advocate and convener of public and private sector parties to address critical issues but at the end of the day it did not have muscle to execute a number of critical functions. That is not meant as a negative criticism of Don Powell, his team or the intent behind his Office. All have done tremendous work to make things happen but as to having the strength to execute a number of things, the Office did not have the authority to do it.

When it comes to recovery issues, having a mechanism with muscle and authority to make things happen is essential for success. Ad hoc and improvised efforts can do some things to aid initial recovery efforts but more formal structures, policies and programs are necessary if long-term recovery efforts are to be expedited and successful. All of us, most certainly the residents of the Gulf Coast would like to see the devastated areas of Louisiana and Mississippi recover faster. Infrastructure and community restoration and repair do not occur over night but a focused program/agency led by an assigned Chief Recovery Officer dedicated to the area could become the driver to get things to happen faster. State, local, tribal and community leaders need every hand they can get post-disaster and having some force and muscle aiding them would be a big help.

Since the Hurricanes of 2005, DHS and FEMA have done a lot in the planning, preparing, training and responding functions with emergency management but recovery is one area where significant work remains to be done. The lessons learned from the Bush Administration and those prior to it need to be reviewed and considered by the incoming Administration as it inherits its homeland security responsibilities. Recovery is HUGE part of that. We have not necessarily appreciated that aspect of post-disaster life as much as we should but having the means to make recovery ‘happen’ is essential to any community’s health and restoration.

We’ve made due with our existing mechanisms long enough.

We’re smarter now and we need to plan for our ‘recovery,’ as much we do the planning, preparing, training and responding for the next ‘big one.’

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More