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Craig Fugate made one of his first journeys to Capitol Hill today as FEMA Administrator to present and defend his Agency’s FY10 budget request. The 80 or so minutes of the hearing were free of fireworks and some of the previous finger pointing questioning that is often standard practice at FEMA hearings, but that does not mean that tough questions weren’t still asked of Fugate.

Members of both parties made no secret of their displeasure at the Administration’s proposed cuts to Fire Grants and pledged to restore those missing dollars.  Additional questions posed to Fugate centered on what performance metrics FEMA has in place to assess the impact of the billions of dollars in grant money that FEMA has distributed over the past several years.  The Chair of the Subcommittee holding today’s hearing, Rep. Henry Cuellar has long championed the issue of performance metrics and in every hearing I’ve ever seen him, he makes a point of asking to see those measures so as to assess whether a program is working or not.The most interesting point in the hearing came during questioning by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS).  The Chairman seemed to go out of his way to press the new FEMA Administrator to provide him and the Committee with greater specifics on how his Agency would address some of the post-disaster housing issues that continue to plague Thompson’s own Congressional District as well as other Gulf Coast regions still dealing with the aftereffects of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike.

In his response, Fugate offered a courteous and honest pledge to work with the Chairman and his Committee on what is and always will be a thorny issue.  While being forthright and candid in his response, Fugate also went on to say that there is no easy solution to the housing crisis.  He wasn’t flip or disrespectful in offering that answer, but certainly did not allow himself to be pushed around by the question either.

He certainly heard and empathized with the Chairman’s question (and the other Member questions that addressed this same issue), but Fugate being Fugate, he laid the hard, cold facts on the table that when a large scale disaster occurs (such as Katrina, Rita or Ike), or if one on the scale of a New Madrid fault earthquake should strike the US, we are going to have significant challenges in satisfying housing as well as other immediate and long-term needs.His answer was an honest one but I couldn’t help but feel that the Members were expecting Fugate to somehow pull out a magic wand, wave it over their problem and POOF make it go away.
There are no magic wands to the housing issue or any other long-term recovery, disaster planning or emergency response function that Fugate has taken ownership over.  The fact that Fugate doesn’t have a “magic wand” won’t stop tough questions from being asked; nor should it.

The reality is Fugate and his Agency are just one piece of the puzzle that has to come together to address housing or any other issue.  Fugate essentially gave the Subcommittee that message today in his responses to several different questions.  In every forum he’s been at since taking office, he’s pledged to be open to working with anyone who wants to help create solutions to any number of situations in which FEMA has a role.

In recognizing that he is charged with leading the Agency to provide some of those solutions, he acknowledged the limitations and challenges that bureaucratic processes and policies pose.  Based upon the questions and feedback the Subcommittee Members were giving him, a number of those processes and policies are encumbering recovery efforts for many of their constituents.

The Administrator again pledged to look into all of their respective situations but he offered an interesting measure when talking about his own metrics to FEMA’s solution-providing.  He said words to the effect, “If we [FEMA] can’t clearly explain the solution to our respective families, we’ve got a problem.”

Not a bad metric when measuring solutions to any number of problems.

Rich Cooper blog 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