WASHINGTON, D.C. - Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), a leader in reforming the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and an outspoken critic of its Hurricane Katrina failures, testified this morning before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The Senator discussed her bipartisan efforts to repair FEMA in the 1990s as the senior Democrat on the Veterans, Housing and Independent Agencies (VA-HUD) Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversaw FEMA.
"Working on a bipartisan basis, we reformed FEMA in 1989 - transforming it from a relic of the Cold War into a professional, prepared, all-hazards agency. It took time, money and bipartisan cooperation, but we accomplished real change," said Senator Mikulski. "Hurricane Katrina was the storm we all feared. In the hours and days after Hurricane Katrina, I watched in disbelief and absolute frustration at the federal government's befuddled and boondoggled response. They blew it."
To hear Senator Mikulski's testimony, you can download a high-quality mp3 at: http://demradio.senate.gov/actualities/mikulski/mikulski060308.mp3.
Senator Mikulski's testimony, as delivered, is below:
"Thank you very much, Chairman Collins and Ranking Member Lieberman, thanks so much for inviting me to testify. My kudos to the committee. First of all, wherever the word reform rings out within Congress, it seems to come to Governments Ops to do the jobs. And you've been leading - both you Senator Collins and your colleagues - whether it was intel reform, and of course now, Katrina reform, lobbying reform. This is obviously the reform committee and why I wanted to come and testify. You should be congratulated on the reputation the committee has gained for its fairness, its thoroughness, its pragmatism and also its collegiality and civility. Maybe if we all worked like this we could all achieve reform.
"I contacted the committee in September to see if I could offer my services because in the early 1990s, as the Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on VA-HUD, we funded FEMA. I wanted to offer what we did in terms of reform because of Hugo and because of Andrew to see what were the lessons learned - why did FEMA lose its way, and some observations. In 1989, I became the Chairperson of the VA-HUD Subcommittee - FEMA was in its jurisdiction. What did we find? Senator Garn, my wonderful colleague, was my ranking member. We found that FEMA was a Cold War relic. And we went to work on a bipartisan basis, transforming it from a relic of the Cold War into a professional, prepared, all-hazards agency.
"Hurricane Katrina was the storm we all feared. In the hours and days after Hurricane Katrina, like all of you I watched in disbelief and absolute frustration. Why? At the federal government's befuddled and boondoggled response blowing it. The people in our Gulf Coast states were doubly victimized - first by the hurricane, second by the slow and sluggish response of our government. And I thought: How like Hugo. How like Andrew. I didn't know about Betsy.
"So this of course has prompted reform. Well, back in 1989 when we took a look at this, what did I see? What I found out as I took over the chairmanship of that subcommittee was that FEMA was a Cold War agency. It focused only on worrying about if we were hit with a nuclear attack. It was out of date, out of touch and riddled with political hacks. If you had to give someone a favor job, whether it was at the federal level or the state level, put them in civil defense. It was called civil defense. And many of us in my generation remember where we used to practice by hiding under those desks if war came. Well that's the way the bureaucrats were. Any time there was a question, they hid under their desk. So we set about reform. They were focused on something called continuity of government. It was incompetent leadership. They had ridiculous ideas. In the event of a nuclear war - stop first at the post office and leave your forwarding address to these three shelters. So you get a sense of what it was like.
"But Senator Garn and I looked at it. And then what happened was Hurricane Hugo hit the Carolinas, particularly South Carolina. FEMA's response was very poor. The military had to come in to get power back up in Charleston. The people went for over a week without basic functions. Sound familiar? Our former colleague Senator Hollings had to call the President's Chief of Staff, John Sununu, to get help and call the head of the Joint Chiefs, then General Colin Powell, just to get generators from the Army. It was like cats and charmer cops. Are you in charge? No, I'm not in charge. They had the generators, but didn't ask. It was all of that. In the meantime, there was no water, no utilities in Charleston. We began then to begin to examine what steps to take in reform.
"Then along the way we were hit with Andrew. Andrew, again, was the worst disaster. Yet FEMA's response was so bad and they were so inept, that President Bush I sent Andy Card, then Secretary of Transportation, to take over. I remember seeing a woman named Katie Hale saying, 'Where the hell is the cavalry on this one? We need food. We need water. We need people.'
"Having said all that, it was very clear to Senator Garn and I. Our job was to protect lives, protect people, and now of course protect the homeland. Working with Garn, and then Senator Bond, we worked to change it. We commissioned three studies and I ask you to go take a look at them. One was a GAO study. The other was a National Academy of Public Administration and then FEMA's own I.G. [Inspector General]. They do a spectacular job, I know you are going to hear from I.G. Skinner later.
"We looked at all of this and we wanted to be able to prevent, do all we could for prevention, and do what we could to respond. Our goals then were:
"First of all, FEMA has to be professionalized. They need a professional director and a professional staff. Whoever runs FEMA has to have a background in crisis management. Either to come from emergency response at the state level, the way James Lee Witt or Joe Allbaugh did, or from the military or private sector where they've done crisis management and know how to organize large numbers of people. But not only professionalized Washington, but insist there be professionals at each state level. And I would emphasize reform must also be directed at the states. No matter how good James Lee Witt was, no matter how dedicated Joe Allbaugh was, if they didn't have the state functioning well, it wouldn't work. And as we know the genius of our system is that each state will have a different type of threat. The terrain is different, the threat is different. And they need to be ready. So the professionalization and the way was that each state submit a plan. If you don't do the right plan and do tabletops, you're not going to get the money. I think you have to have a muscular way to have state plans in place with professional people and where there are benchmarks for measurement and then use the ultimate withholding. That's tough, but let me tell you, it works. So that's why we go for the professionalization of FEMA.
"We focused on it being a risk-based agency - that means prepared for any risk that affects the risk base. Because we thought then that the threat of the Cold War was coming to an end. The wall was coming down in Berlin, but the wall wasn't coming down in the federal bureaucracy. So we said, what are the risks? The threat is natural disasters. And our states - we are coastal senators, I share a coast with my colleague from Delaware - we're threatened by hurricanes. Soon as June comes, we're on our hurricanes readiness again - regardless of what the threat is. And now it's even more important, because it could be an earthquake in California, a tornado in the Midwest or, of course, a terrorist attack.
"Next, be ready for all hazards. And again, it's the states that get ready with Washington offering the command and control and the ultimate backup of sending in the calvary should the states collapse. All hazards need to be prepared like when we had a fire in the Baltimore tunnel - we didn't know if it was predatory or not. A hazardous chemical spill, a hurricane, a tornado or even a dirty bomb.
"If we practice the three Rs, of readiness, meaning if we are ready, and we're ready at the state level, then we can respond where the threat occurs and then you have the infrastructure ready for recovery. We were able to put the state plans, professionalize the agency, in place.
"What was never really ultimately addressed though is the federal backup if there is a complete collapse. That is something that I believe needs to be very carefully examined because of two things:
"Number one, I recall Governor Giles of Florida when Andrew hit. He said, we need NASA satellites to tell me what my coast line looks like. We can't even call the first responders. The firehouses are under water. And you know all of the great tragedies that you've heard. There does come a time when there is only the federal government that can bring in, under some kind of doctrine of mutual aid, really come in and provide the resources necessary. We lost cities - we've never lost an entire city, except back to Betsy.
"That has to be dealt with. The other was is the role of the Vice President in our earlier recommendation. The Vice President always backs the President up, but in a big disaster, like when the big ones hit, the Vice President should move to the Situation Room and really take charge, to make sure the governors can handle the job, that the governors next to the states affected can provide mutual aid, and so on. Because it is also an appropriate role for the Vice President should the President be out of the country. The Vice President would be prepared and also should the Vice President ever have to take over for any reason, would know the complete working of the FEMA disaster plans and how it should work. There are those other questions, too, of legal authority when the government takes over.
"Our three Rs have to be readiness, response, recovery. To do that we have to have professinalzation, risk-based, all hazards.
"You know, hurricanes are predictable. Terrorist attacks are not. And we have to be ready. Madame Chair and colleagues, I'm concerned that whether it's Avian Flu or another hurricane getting ready for the season or something else, we don't know the question, who is in charge? That question has never been answered. Who manages the disaster? And most of all, who manages the panic around that? And who speaks? Your health committee members have just done a tabletop on bioterrorism. It's the same.
"So I believe number one, maybe FEMA ought to be an independent agency. Take a look at that.
"Number two, maybe we need a disaster response agency, which handles this. But I also think we need to take a look at what would be our response and how we would handle these others, like Avian Flu. Are we going to call FEMA in? Is FEMA going to be Avian Flu? I don't know if we have to respond, but I don't think so. I would hope not.
"But should we have a new framework for that? What are the legal authorities? Can a President supersede a governor if necessary?
"These are the big questions. But I believe we can create the right infrastructure. We can be ready for the natural disasters, and so on.
"I am going to conclude by saying that when we work together, and I don't mean just us, but really work - we know how we've worked with Delaware. Just the other night there was a terrible accident in a factory in West Virginia. The closest search and rescue team with helicopters was in Maryland with our state police. But because they had worked together, because they had trained together, because they knew each other, could talk to each other, trusted each other, my wonderful Maryland state troopers were able to go fly that 90 miles, the Coast Guard was too far away, this up near our Appalachian region. And in the pitch blackness with power lines around them when they couldn't see, they went down and were able to rescue two, and for the third they weren't sure whether he was going to get in the little basket that they have, but they stayed to make sure they were going to leave no one behind. Our state troopers did it, but they did it because they were professional, they were trained, they had worked together, they had trusted.
"That's what they did, that terrible night in West Virginia - 48 hours ago. It should be a model of what we need. Let's work together, train together, and trust each other.
"Thank you very much, and I hope this has been useful."