How Will FEMA Change Under Obama?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was widely ridiculed for its pitiful response to Hurricane Katrina, may undergo big changes under President Obama. Agency critics say the nation's disaster-relief efforts have been hampered ever since FEMA was lumped into the Department of Homeland Security—the slow-footed bureaucratic behemoth created by the Bush administration after 9/11. Last week, officials from the International Association of Emergency Managers, which represents local disaster agencies, met with Obama aides and urged them to break FEMA free from Homeland Security and restore its previous status as an independent agency.

One person opposed to that idea: DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, who argues that divorcing the two agencies would wind up creating more layers of bureaucracy and would leave FEMA without easy access to key Homeland Security resources, such as helicopters and communications gear. Yet Homeland Security's efforts to coordinate 22 disparate agencies—some of which, like the U.S. Secret Service, have traditions of fierce independence—have been clumsy at best. The Government Accountability Office found that in the wake of Katrina, "purchase cards" issued by Homeland Security that were supposed to pay for relief supplies instead were used to buy such items as a 63-inch plasma TV, 100 laptop computers (all of which mysteriously disappeared) and 20 boats for which the government paid double the retail price.

An Obama transition spokeswoman said his team had no public comment on their work. But two people familiar with transition discussions, who asked for anonymity when talking about private deliberations, said Obama's advisers were indeed conducting a sweeping review of Homeland Security, which may result in a shake-up of the department.

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