Subscribe to the DPJ Weekly Brief newsletter: Subscribe
Dirksen Senate Office BuildingFebruary 15, 2006 (Remarks as Prepared)
Chairman Collins, Ranking Member Lieberman, and members of the Committee: Thank you for the opportunity to be here today to discuss the response to Katrina and the steps we need to take to improve our nation’s preparedness and response capabilities.
Any discussion of Katrina must first begin by addressing the sheer magnitude of the challenge. Katrina was quite clearly one of the most destructive natural disasters to strike American soil.
Scope of Disaster
The scope of the damage is unprecedented – with some 90,000 square miles of impacted areas – an area larger than Great Britain and three-and-a-half times the area inundated by the Great Mississippi flood of 1927.
Katrina also forced an estimated 770,000 people to seek refuge in other parts of our country, representing the largest displacement of Americans since the great Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s.
In terms of the damage to housing, Katrina completely destroyed or made uninhabitable an estimated 300,000 homes – or six times as many homes destroyed by the Midwest Flood of 1993, and almost 11 times as many homes destroyed by Hurricane Andrew.
The storm also created a remarkable amount of debris. We estimate that Katrina’s destruction resulted in a staggering 118 million cubic yards of debris – more than double the amount produced by the four hurricanes that struck Florida in 2004 and six times the amount of debris created by Hurricane Andrew.
The relief effort, of course, was also unprecedented. Within the first six days of the response, the Federal government delivered more than 28 million pounds of ice, 8 1/2 million meals, and 4 million gallons of water. This exceeds the combined totals for the entire recovery operation during Hurricane Andrew.
In addition, the Coast Guard rescued 33,000 people, which is six times the number it rescued in all of 2004. FEMA coordinated the rescue of more than 6,500 people and for the first time deployed all 28 of its Urban Search and Rescue teams for a single event.
The combined rescues performed by these two agencies total almost 40,000. That is more than seven times the number of people rescued during the Florida hurricanes in 2004.
These accomplishments were the work of the thousands of dedicated Americans who represent the best of the Department of Homeland Security. They are dedicated, they are professional, and all of them have made tremendous personal sacrifices to serve a cause greater than themselves. As we consider the totality of the response, we should not overlook their efforts.
Let there be no mistake – Katrina was the 100 year storm that we all feared. It revealed what I told this committee in July – that we are not where we need to be in our ability to manage catastrophic events. As a result, we need to make sure we are building critical capabilities in the short and long term that will allow us to effectively respond to ultra-catastrophic events as well as more common dangers we face.
This tragedy emphasized how critical it is that we ensure our planning and response capabilities perform with seamless integrity and efficiency in any type of disaster situation – even one of cataclysmic nature.
Furthermore, it emphasized the importance of having accurate, timely and reliable information about conditions on the ground, the lack of which frustrated our best efforts to coordinate the response with our State and local counterparts.
In addition, although the Department of Homeland Security pre-positioned significant numbers of personnel, assets and resources before the hurricane made landfall, we now know our capabilities were simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of this storm, including logistics, claims management, contracting, and communications capabilities.
Over the past months, there has been a great deal of discussion about what worked and what didn’t. At the Joint Field Office emergency response centers in Mississippi and Louisiana, we continue to gather information on a changing set of requirements to better serve state and local governments in the recovery process. I can assure you that we at the Department are our own harshest critics. We’re committed to using the lessons learned from Katrina to increase our ability to plan for and respond to catastrophic events.
Boosting State Capabilities
Of course, emergency preparedness and response are not solely Federal responsibilities. We rely heavily upon our partnership with State and local governments, as well as the private sector, to ensure that disaster planning is a priority and that we build the necessary capabilities across our nation for effective, coordinated emergency response.
Last year, in the shadow of Jackson Square, the President directed that we conduct an immediate review, in cooperation with local counterparts, of emergency plans in every major city in America. Congress has followed up with a similar requirement. A preliminary self-assessment has been completed by State and local officials of catastrophic planning in all 50 states, five territories, and our 75 largest urban areas. The assessment shows a mixed review of capabilities to deal with catastrophic events.
We have already begun conducting the second phase of this review, which includes 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 improve catastrophic emergency planning. We will provide a detailed report and recommendations to the President and Congress prior to the start of this year’s hurricane season.
Of course, we must also make significant improvements at the Federal level to improve our ability to effectively assist our State and local counterparts in their response. As you know, the President tasked the Department of Homeland Security with coordinating Federal operations within the United States to prepare for, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies. As the President has said, the results of our response to Katrina were unacceptable. 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.
As the Secretary of Homeland Security, I am accountable and accept responsibility for the performance of the entire Department. I also have the responsibility for fixing 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.
To accomplish this important goal, 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 this goal by next hurricane season. We must be able to provide support and assistance to disaster victims,entify the most urgent needs, and get resources into those areas quickly. We must also communicate effectively with our partners and have greater confidence in the information we rely upon to make decisions.
Many of these improvements will happen through stronger Federal, State, local and private sector partnerships and a shared plan for moving forward. But we also need to make some changes in Washington.
DHS and FEMA
We haveentified a number of issues within FEMA, including a series of long-term policy issues that we must address with Congress. These include long-term housing and possible changes to how we provide individual assistance and short-term sheltering. Obviously, decisions about these policy issues will await findings by the Presidentially- mandated “lessons learned,” and by this Committee and the House. But some issues need to be addressed and their resolution underway by the beginning of hurricane season.
FEMA is not – nor has it ever been – a first responder. For 25 years, under our legal and constitutional framework, FEMA has worked to support State and local first responders during a disaster and provides assistance when a State makes a formal request for support.
But when State and local capabilities are clearly overwhelmed, as was the case in Katrina, the Federal government must be prepared to assume responsibility for some aspects of the response. And that means DHS must be able to function effectively, it must be able to provide assistance in a timely manner, and when a potential disaster looms, it must be prepared to lean forward and get help and supplies into the pipeline before a formal request is made.
Three elements are foundational. First, we must complete the integration of a unified incident command at DHS. In creating DHS and bringing incident management into one place, this Committee had it right. Just as intelligence functions were stove-piped before 9-11, incident management has been stove-piped even after the formation of DHS.
We need to better integrate our incident management functions. We must have a common operating picture and a clear chain of command for managing incidents, especially catastrophes. And we must have a unity of purpose across our Department.
Second, we must improve operational capabilities and become a 21st century Department – with the focus, discipline, and technology that are the hallmarks of all great 21st century organizations.
Third, we must not lose sight of the need to foster our employees – some of the most talented, dedicated public servants in the Federal government. They are our best asset, and many of them have decades of experience for which there is no substitute. But these men and women deserve better tools to match their skills and needs.
Therefore, in the near future, we will be making several major changes to how we do business to support a strengthened, more effective emergency response.
One of the biggest barriers to the response to Katrina was not being able to get supplies quickly into the areas that needed them the most. Of course, during Katrina, the flooded streets and extensive damage to critical infrastructure prevented a lot of supplies from reaching the most heavily damaged areas in a timely fashion.
FEMA employees did the best they could under these conditions with the resources they had. Despite this remarkable effort, FEMA’s logistics systems simply were not up to the task of handling a truly catastrophic event. FEMA lacks the technology and information management systems to effectively track shipments and manage inventories.
FEMA also relies on other government agencies like the Department of Transportation –
who often serve as agents of FEMA and contract through their extensive network of private sector entities to provide support and move most of the necessary commodities. To be successful in the future, DHS must have some of the same skill sets of 21st century companies and be capable of routinely tracking, monitoring, and dispatching commodities where needed.
Therefore, our first step for strengthening FEMA will be to create a 21st century logistics management system that will require the establishment of a logistics supply chain working with other Federal agencies and the private sector. In the first instance, that means we must put agreements in place before the need arises again to ensure a network of relief products, supplies and transportation support are in place that can be rapidly tracked and managed.
This expanded logistics system will also include a better command and control structure so that FEMA can track shipments and ensure supplies get to the people who need them the most.
Our second major area of improvement will be to upgrade FEMA’s claims management systems, including its registration and intake procedures.
It doesn’t matter what business you’re in – if you can’t meet the needs of your customers then you are failing at your job. FEMA’s customers are disaster victims. FEMA must be able toentify and communicate with them wherever they are.
What does that mean?. FEMA’s disaster intake systems cannot be overly burdensome or bureaucratic. They must be able to adjust and scale to the changing needs of disaster populations during surge periods. They also must protect against fraud and abuse.
Therefore, in the immediate future, we will significantly enhance and strengthen FEMA’s disaster registration and processing systems, its website, and its 1-800 call-in number – including giving FEMA the capacity to handle up to 200,000 disaster registrations per day. We will also upgrade FEMA’s outdated information technology and computer systems.
Of course, not every disaster is the same and different disaster victims have different needs. This often presents some difficult challenges. For example, in most cases, disaster victims who require sheltering can be accommodated within their own communities or at least within their own State. With Katrina, an entire geographic region of our country required sheltering in all 50 states. As a result, FEMA was challenged with a set of victim management challenges that severely tested the capabilities and assumptions of the agency.
In the future, we will both expand and de-centralize FEMA’s mass disaster claims management architecture when there is a significant displacement of people. In anticipation of this next hurricane season, we also intend to develop a pilot program for deploying mobile disaster registration trucks to areas where victims have taken shelter, enabling those victims to apply for assistance closer to where they live and work.
Finally, rather than relying primarily on volunteers to provide services in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, FEMA will develop a highly-trained nucleus of permanent employees to serve as its core disaster workforce. Of course, volunteers will always be an important part of the FEMA team, but in the future FEMA must have a larger dedicated disaster workforce that can respond to the unique challenges of surge populations.
The damage caused by Katrina is without precedent. Although tremendous progress has been made to clear streets and public and private land, we know that debris removal remains one of the biggest ongoing challenges in the Gulf. Debris not only blocks roads, but it also prevents the rebuilding and reconstruction of homes and infrastructure.
At last count, more than 71 million cubic yards of Katrina-related debris has been removed from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas. But this process, which is labor intensive and often dangerous, is hampered by a complicated contracting and reimbursement process between FEMA, the States, and debris-removal companies.
In the future, we must establish a robust, pre-established contract and response architecture with debris removal companies – cutting out middle-men and ensuring that States are quickly and cost-effectively supported by qualified local debris removal firms.
While we envision the states taking a greater and faster role in coordinating debris removal operations, we will continue to count on support from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during those situations, normally in the initial days of a disaster response, when states may be too overwhelmed to effectively initiate and manage debris removal.
Streamlining debris removal will help people and communities recover faster, and it will help FEMA ensure a more coordinated and pr