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Critics Challenge Shays On FEMA

Critics Challenge Shays On FEMA

His opponents are asking how Shays could profess shock and anger over FEMA incompetence in his questioning of ousted agency head Michael D. Brown Sept. 27. "Chris Shays is happy to say he's chairman of the subcommittee when it's convenient. As soon as something goes wrong, he takes no responsibility for anything. He has no explanations," said Westport First Selectwoman Diane G. Farrell, who is challenging Shays for his seat next year. Congressman Chris Shays of Connecticut served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Fiji in the 1960's.

Critics Challenge Shays On FEMA

Critics Challenge Shays On FEMA

October 11, 2005

By DAVID LIGHTMAN, Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Christopher Shays prides himself on being a government watchdog.

His subcommittee heard testimony 19 months ago that the Federal Management Emergency Administration was having problems. He is a senior member of a committee that was warned in 2003 about a lack of communication between FEMA and state and local governments during Hurricane Isabel. An inspector general earlier this year issued a similar warning.

Now his opponents are asking how Shays could profess shock and anger over FEMA incompetence in his questioning of ousted agency head Michael D. Brown Sept. 27.

"Chris Shays is happy to say he's chairman of the subcommittee when it's convenient. As soon as something goes wrong, he takes no responsibility for anything. He has no explanations," said Westport First Selectwoman Diane G. Farrell, who is challenging Shays for his seat next year.

"Our committees are supposed to be asking the tough questions," added Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-3rd District, though she did not single out Shays. "But Republicans have done nothing but drag their feet."

Shays, R-4th District, responds that the national security subcommittee he chairs has held more than 60 hearings on a variety of homeland and national security topics since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11, 2001, and he can't make everything a top priority. And, he said, FEMA seemed to do a decent job during the 2004 Florida hurricanes.

The question Democrats raise is going to be a major topic throughout the 2006 congressional campaign, which has already begun. Shays' seat is considered one of the country's most vulnerable, and on the day Brown testified before the congressman's committee, Farrell was quickly on the attack.

She and other critics point to potential warning signs they believe Shays should have seen:

March 2003 - Shays' subcommittee held a hearing on whether the country was prepared to handle the public health and safety threats posed by nuclear terrorism.

"One dangerous element not predicated on the cause of an incident, but certainly capable of compounding the negative effects, is poor communication between federal, state and local officials," Shays said at the time. "County, city and town leaders wait at the far end of a dysfunctional daisy chain of confusing directives from FEMA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and plant operators."

Shays said last week that his comment had nothing to do with FEMA's preparations for hurricanes.

He noted that FEMA responded to his concerns in June 2003, saying it had made progress on evacuation plans and other procedures. Shays followed up the hearing in September 2004 with more questions about the plan.

October 2003 - The full House Government Reform Committee conducted a series of hearings questioning how well emergency relief agencies responded to Hurricane Isabel, which had hit the mid-Atlantic states hard a month earlier.

"Vital communication lines between the localities, the state and FEMA broke down on occasion," Rep. Edward L. Schrock, R-Va., told the committee at the time, "resulting in needs not being fulfilled, followed by a lot of finger pointing to assign blame."

Eric Tolbert, director of FEMA's response division, said much the same thing Brown said late last month - that disaster relief is largely a state and local function. "There is great risk in relying on the federal government," Tolbert said. Shays did not attend that hearing, which was held in Norfolk, Va., and was not aware of its testimony.

March 2004 - Clinton administration FEMA Director James Lee Witt testified before a joint hearing of two subcommittees, including the subcommittee that Shays chairs. The testimony is still available on Shays' subcommittee website.

"As you and your colleagues continue to examine [the Department of Homeland Security] and its growth," Witt said, "I want you to know that I and many others in this emergency management community across the country are very concerned about the direction FEMA is headed."

Witt then detailed those concerns, including whether "the successful partnership that was built between local/state/federal partners and their ability to communicate, coordinate, train, prepare and respond has been sharply eroded."

Shays attended the hearing at the start, but left for House votes. His calendar shows about 25 different meetings or events he could have attended that day, and he spent part of the afternoon at a meeting with Navy Secretary Gordon England, discussing the future of the Marine One presidential helicopter. Stratford's Sikorsky Aircraft was trying to keep the contract.

Had he been at the Witt hearing, Shays said, "I certainly would have asked questions." But he noted that one of the key FEMA complaints at the time was whether to restore the Cabinet-level status the agency had during part of the Clinton administration. The agency has since become part of the Homeland Security Department.

"I hear that with every department that ever comes before me. They all want to be Cabinet positions," Shays said. "I don't buy it - and I could be wrong - but problems existed not because they weren't Cabinet level."

June 2005 - After looking at FEMA's response to four major hurricanes that hit Florida and the Gulf Coast a year earlier, Homeland Security's inspector general issued new warnings about FEMA.

The report found FEMA's information technology systems poorly managed. It also said FEMA's planning provides "little assurance that the agency can monitor and achieve the emergency management goals established by the department."

FEMA officials responded that the criticism was often "inaccurate" and could give the impression that emergency planning was deficient.

Shays said that before Katrina, FEMA's troubles seemed to be less of a priority than other matters before the committee and subcommittee.

"Every day I come across things I think have difficulty," he said. He also said FEMA was less of a worry because during last year's Florida hurricanes, "FEMA functioned well, except for having too much bureaucracy."

Some independent analysts concurred with Shays. "The hurricane response did go fairly well last year," said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Research in Jacksonville, Fla.

But, he added, Florida residents are well-prepared for hurricanes, and the state is governed by Jeb Bush, who is not only the president's brother, but by last year had six years of experience in handling storm response.

Shays' explanations aren't good enough, Farrell said. "I would have fought for more FEMA money," she said. "I know these issues. I've worked on them."

Shays counters that a congressman simply cannot do everything, and he's being unfairly criticized.

"Nobody can accuse me of not working and nobody can accuse me of not focusing on extraordinarily important issues. Of the 60 hearings I had on national security," he asked, "which ones should I not have done?"

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Story Source: Hartford Courant

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Figures; COS - Fiji; Politics; Congress; FEMA; Hurricane Relief


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