Disaster Housing Plans Need Work, DHS Official Says

Should another Katrina — or an earthquake or a tornado — hit the nation, putting a roof over the heads of the victims is a problem that the Homeland Security Department’s watchdog calls “a work in progress.”

“I’m sure we can handle large disasters, but we’re not ready to handle another [hurricane] Katrina-like disaster where we have 350,000 to 500,000 homes destroyed across the Gulf area,” said Richard Skinner, inspector general for the department.

However, the responsibility for disaster preparedness doesn’t rest solely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he cautioned. “People always turn to FEMA,” he told the House Homeland Security Committee last week. “FEMA is a coordinator. They’re just one cog in the wheel. . . . They’re a conduit of funds.”

According to Skinner, FEMA can work with state and local governments to help fund them to get prepared and identify mitigation measures they should take — and federal, state and local government all share responsibility.

“If we start investing in our infrastructure, start investing in preparedness and start investing in mitigation, it’s going to lessen the likelihood that we’re going to have a catastrophic event,” he said. “And if we do, we’ll be better prepared for it.”

He suggested that state and local governments should take steps to prepare, such as identifying sites where temporary housing can be placed in advance of disasters to avoid the kinds of problems that arose in Louisiana and Mississippi after Katrina.

“Have you waived your local codes and ordinances so we can bring them in, or should we have to argue about that after the disaster strikes?” Skinner asked.

Another witness, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, agreed with Skinner’s assessment on the country’s preparedness for another Katrina-type disaster.

“One of the key steps that I think our planning needs to really start focusing on in some of these large-scale events is when we’re going to have to shift from being able to house people in the area through a variety of options and when we’d have to look at relocating people to where housing is for a short-term basis,” Fugate said following his testimony.

Housing is “the linchpin of our success” in being able to recover from catastrophic disasters, he said, “And if we are not successful in that, even if we succeeded in the initial response, we have not really done what we set out to do, which is to get a community back,” he said.

FEMA is responsible for only a piece of the overall disaster response, primarily providing temporary shelter to stricken populations.

“Those are not permanent long-term solutions,” he said.


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