Remarks by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff at the National Emergency Management Association Mid-Year Conference

Washington, D.C.National Emergency Management Association Mid-Year ConferenceFebruary 13, 2006   Fact Sheet: Strengthening FEMA to Maximize Mission Performance   Bruce, I'd like to thank you for inviting me.  And, we arranged a little snow yesterday so we could introduce a concept of some severe weather to give additional urgency to these proceedings.  Seems the problem we have in this country is we either have too much moisture or too little moisture, depending on whether you’re on the coast or in the interior.  If we could average it out, we could prevent some of the disasters we’ve been faced with.   Well, I really wanted to come here to spend some time with the nation’s emergency managers and those working across our country to ensure the safety and security of our citizens and communities.  What I'd like to do in my remarks is outline where I think we want to go in the first step of our process of reengineering DHS and FEMA, to make ourselves better partners with you in protecting this country and responding when we have natural disasters.   I do have prepared remarks, but I'm going to step out of the prepared remarks on a couple of occasions.  I'm saying this because I want to warn the press to take their pens out and their pads out so they don’t miss what I want to say.   I want to begin by saying that in the last couple of days, I’ve read in some quarters that people are taking the position that DHS sees itself as a terrorism-focused agency, or that there’s some huge difference between what we do when we deal with disasters that are trigged by evil acts of men and disasters that are triggered by acts of nature.  I want to tell, you I unequivocally and strongly reject this attempt to drive a wedge between our concerns about terrorism and our concerns about natural disasters.  That kind of wedge makes no sense, and it does a disservice to all of you here who are working very hard to protect against any kind of disaster of whatever cause.   When I came on board this Department almost exactly a year ago, one of the first things I thought I would do is try to find out how people view the Department, both from within and from without.  The Department was barely two years old when I arrived.  So I commissioned within the Department, and outside the Department, what I called a Second Stage Review.  The purpose of that review was, as with a rocket ship that’s launched, it’s had its initial booster rocket, and now when that booster falls away, we’re trying to make sure our course is properly set, when we get to the second stage rocket.  So I wanted to make sure our course was properly set.   And the way I went about this is, I said, let’s bring together people from within the Department with all kinds of disciplines and backgrounds, and let’s tell them to put to one side the individual interests of their components and to ask:  What are the core critical missions that DHS has to perform for this country?  How close are we to achieving those missions?  If we haven’t achieved them, why haven’t we achieved them?  And, what can we do to make sure we do achieve them?   I specifically asked these teams to go out into the country and talk to people at the state and local level and in the private sector, the various communities with whom we work as partners, to get their perspectives.  As part of that process, I know a number of you were engaged by our 2SR review teams to talk about issues like:  Are we prepared?  What do we need to do to get better prepared?  What does the federal government need to do to work better with states and localities to make sure we are prepared?  And the product of that review, that Second Stage Review, went into a lot of serious thinking about how we could reconfigure the Department on its anniversary, or shortly after its second-year anniversary, to do a better job of protecting this country and responding when something bad has happened.   I gave a speech and I testified before Congress.  And when I spoke to Congress and when I spoke to the public, I said pretty honestly, I didn’t think we were where we needed to be in the area of preparedness.  And as part of the response to that, I said I thought that we weren’t paying enough attention to the need to focus on natural hazards, as well as terrorism.  For that reason, I specifically announced that at the beginning of August, we would host the first ever national meeting at DHS here in Washington, including both state homeland security advisors and the emergency management community, to make sure we brought them all together in a summit to talk in a comprehensive sense about how we address the threats that face this country.   And I participated in that conference over a period of two days.  And I met with a lot of you, I spoke to you, others in the Department spoke to you, and we talked about the importance of making sure that we were balancing our focus on the total spectrum of what we need to worry about to protect Americans -- prevention, protection, response and recovery -- and to make sure that we were integrating these functions.  Because one of the things that was evident to me -- and I know it’s evident to you -- whether it’s a natural disaster or a disaster caused by a terrorist, our response is often going to be the same.  The concept of operations is going to be the same, our capabilities are going to have to be the same, our training is going to have to be the same, and therefore, we ought to look at these as a single set of problems.     In fact, we all know that a lot of times, we face a disaster and we don’t know whether it’s manmade or natural.  Sure we know a hurricane is an act of God, and we know that if bombs go off in a subway, that’s an act of man.  But a major power blackout, like the one we had a couple of years ago over the summer, could be caused by a simple fault in an electrical transmission system, or it could be caused by an act of sabotage.  And because we’re not going to know, our concept of operations has to be seamlessly built so that it operates whether we are dealing with a terrorist act or an act of nature.   And that’s why I come here emphatically to say that the grounding principle in what we do in establishing our program of preparedness and operations going forward is that we are going to do it embracing both those who are focused on preventing terror, and those who are focused on responding to disasters of whatever the cause.   Now, we also recognize something else, and I think I said this when we met at the summit meeting last August, as well.  This was the very beginning of August, and of course, that was before Katrina had arrived on the horizon.  What I recognized then was that all emergencies of a certain scale require an integrated response at a local, state and federal level.  And that means the key to our success, in creating this kind of security and response capability for America, is expanded partnership with state and local leaders, and the private sector, as we move forward together in the area of catastrophic planning.   So let me begin with certain fundamental principles.  Simply put, state emergency managers and first responders will always be our nation’s front-line disaster response.  If a disaster strikes, you are the first on the scene in your state, not the federal government, and that’s not going to change.  And there’s a reason for that.  You know your communities best.  You have the expertise, experience and understanding to know what works and what doesn’t work in your particular states and localities.   Specific planning on a whole range of issues has to be driven by local expertise about transportation, medical capabilities, residential patterns, and other characteristics.  We can’t replace that experience or expertise at the federal level, but at the same time, the federal government does play an important role and has important responsibilities.   In the normal case, in a normal disaster, we work with our state and local partners to boost and support your capabilities.  We do this by pre-positioning equipment and supplies, providing funding, conducting joint exercises, and working with you to develop effective emergency plans.  But second, when we face an extraordinary catastrophe, the federal government can bring a unique set of assets and capabilities to the scene of the response.   So moving forward, we have to take steps to boost operational effectiveness for routine disasters and for the truly exceptional catastrophe.   Now, we meet in the shadow of the most devastating series of storms in American history.  These storms tested and exposed weaknesses in our operational capabilities, but they also provided important lessons that we would be wise to heed.   Katrina alone was clearly one of the most devastating storms to strike American soil.  The scope of the damage is unprecedented -- 90,000 square miles of impacted areas.  That is three-and-one-half times the area inundated by the great Mississippi flood of 1927.  Katrina displaced an estimated 770,000 people, and damaged or destroyed an estimated 300,000 homes.  That is 11 times as many as Hurricane Andrew destroyed.     So this was the 100-year storm everybody feared.  And the size and scope of this disaster, although it is obviously very unusual, reflects the scale of the capabilities we have to be able to deploy if we are to respond to another 100-year storm or a comparable manmade or natural disaster.   We began almost immediately the process of integrating lessons from Katrina and Rita to help our state and local partners become better equipped to address not only catastrophic events, but the more routine disasters and emergencies that we are most likely to face in the future.   Last year, in the shadow of Jackson Square in New Orleans, the President directed that we conduct an immediate review, in cooperation with local counterparts, of emergency plans in every major city in America.  Congress followed up with a similar legislative mandate.  And in fact, Congress instructed that we give a preliminary report on February 10th.  I am pleased to say that we met that deadline and we delivered that report.   That report contains a preliminary self-assessment of catastrophic planning in all 50 states, five territories, and our 75 largest urban areas, undertaken by state and local officials themselves.  And, candidly, this assessment shows a mixed review of capabilities -- some at green, others at yellow, some at red.  I appreciate those of you who assisted with the self-assessments that were part of the first phase of this review, and were honest about where there were shortfalls.  This is going to help us ensure that our states and biggest cities do have effective emergency operations plans in place, including evacuation plans.     And we’re already conducting the second phase of this review, including site visits by teams of former senior state and local homeland security and emergency management officials to validate those emergency plans,entify deficiencies, and make specific recommendations to elevate catastrophic emergency planning consistent with our National Preparedness Goal.   Now, we have to make significant improvements, as well, at the federal level, to give us better ability to effectively assist you in your vital mission.     As we know, the President, in the wake of Congress’ enactment of legislation establishing the Department of Homeland Security, assigned to this Department the responsibility to lead the federal response to disasters.  As the President has said, the results of our response to Katrina were unacceptable.  Some things worked well, but some things which should have worked well did not.  The President has ordered a thorough after-action review process that has been deep, difficult and even painful.  We are cooperating with that review, and have engaged in our own soul searching.  I want to be clear:  As the Secretary of Homeland Security, I am accountable and accept responsibility for the performance of the entire Department, good and bad.  I also have the responsibility to fix what went wrong so we can meet the President’s expectations and the public’s expectations for helping disaster victims as quickly and effectively as possible.  And I will certainly listen to all the advice and even all the criticism that is leveled in order to make sure we get ourselves in as good shape as possible, recognizing that June 1 looms ahead of us as the beginning of yet another hurricane season.   So today, I want to give you a sense of where we are headed to accomplish this important goal of improving our abilities at the federal level.  I believe our most urgent priority in the near-term is to take a hard, honest look at what we can do to improve our response capability and make substantial progress toward that goal by the looming hurricane season.  We have to be able to effectively provide support and assistance to disaster victims,entify the most urgent needs, and get resources into those areas quickly.  We have to communicate effectively with our partners and have greater confidence in the information we rely upon to make our decisions.   Many of these improvements will happen through a stronger, federal, state, local and private sector partnership, and a shared plan for moving forward, but we also need to make some changes in Washington.     Now, we haveentified a number of issues at DHS and FEMA, including a series of long-term policy issues that we have to address with Congress.  These include questions about how do we deal with long-term housing needs, possible changes to the way in which we provide individual assistance and short-term shelter.  And obviously, decisions about these policy issues will have to await findings by the presidentially mandated, lessons-learned review, which you’re going to hear about I think this afternoon, and by Congress itself.  But I also have to say, there are some short-term issues that have to be resolved, or at least have their resolution well underway by the beginning of this hurricane season.   FEMA is not, as you know, a first responder.  For 25 years, FEMA has worked to support state and local first responders during a disaster, and to provide assistance when a state makes a request for support.  But when state and local capabilities are clearly overwhelmed, as was the case in Katrina, and could, for all we know, be the case again this season, the federal government has to be better prepared to assume responsibility for some aspects of the response.  And that means DHS has to be able to function effectively, to provide assistance in a timely manner, and when a potential disaster looms, we have to be prepared to get help and supplies into the pipeline as quickly as possible, even before our partners anticipate their needs.   So how do we do this?  Well, I begin with what I think are kind of the three basic premises, the building blocks, of what we need to start to do immediately.  First, we have to complete the integration of a unified incident command at DHS.  Just as the intelligence functions in this country were stovepiped before September 11th, and in the wake of September 11th, we had to crush those stovepipes together.  I have to tell you that incident management has been stovepiped, and remains stovepiped, even after the creation of DHS.   I want to come back to that Second Stage Review, that review which I undertook, in part, working with you, and having people talking to you ab