Security Debrief contributor, Rich Cooper of Catalyst Partners, was recently quoted in a Government Executive article examining the implications of removing FEMA from under the Department of Homeland Security.  Cooper discusses the failures of FEMA following Hurricane Katrina, but reminds readers that it was an unprecedented event.

Below is an excerpt of the article:

Advocates of returning FEMA to stand-alone status often have compared the agency’s failures in responding to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to its success under James Lee Witt, the former director of emergency services in Arkansas, and FEMA administrator during the Clinton years, before the agency was absorbed into DHS.

The agency Witt inherited in 1993 was widely perceived to be an incompetent, rule-bound bureaucracy whose leaders owed more to political connections than to any expertise in emergency management. Witt was not only an experienced emergency manager who understood FEMA’s shortcomings firsthand, but a close friend of Clinton’s whose access to the president — and the influence such access conveys — was guaranteed.

The IG credited Witt for revitalizing FEMA, but noted that his success stemmed more from his own leadership abilities and his personal relationship with the president than from FEMA’s status as a stand-alone agency. “FEMA often performed poorly even when it was an independent agency,” the report said.

Rich Cooper, who served as business liaison director at Homeland Security from 2003 to 2006, said Witt deserves enormous credit for his accomplishments at FEMA, but pointed out the agency never had to deal with anything comparable to Katrina under Witt. Since Katrina, under the leadership of David Paulison, its most recent administrator whose career also was in emergency management, FEMA developed a much more robust planning capability upon which the Obama administration can build, said Cooper, who is now a partner at Catalyst Partners, a public affairs and lobbying firm in Washington.