WASHINGTON - In the months before Hurricane
Katrina, President George W. Bush sought to cut a key program
to help local governments raise their preparedness, and state
officials warned of a "total lack of focus" on natural
disasters by his homeland-security chief, documents show.
The disclosures add to questions over the administration's
emergency-response planning, Homeland Security Secretary
Michael Chertoff's priorities and the way the White House
budgets for disaster preparedness after the September 11, 2001,
Organizations representing emergency-response and security
officials at state and local agencies had complained of funding
shortages and what they saw as an excessive shift by the
Homeland Security Department away from preparing for natural
disasters, as it focused increasingly on terrorism.
In July, the National Emergency Management Association
wrote lawmakers expressing "grave" concern that still-pending
changes proposed by Chertoff would undercut the Federal
Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
"Our primary concern relates to the total lack of focus on
natural-hazards preparedness," David Liebersbach, the
association's president, said in the July 27 letter to Sens.
Susan Collins, a Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat,
the leaders of a key Senate committee overseeing the agency.
He said Chertoff's emphasis on terrorism "indicates that
FEMA's long-standing mission of preparedness for all types of
disasters has been forgotten at DHS."
FEMA, formerly a cabinet-level agency, was folded into the
new Homeland Security Department as part of a major government
reorganization after the September 11 attacks. The agency has
borne the brunt of criticism over the delays and problems in
responding to Katrina, and its head, Michael Brown, resigned
after being removed from the recovery effort.
Local emergency officials had also warned the
administration over problems meeting a National Response Plan
requested by Bush as a battle-plan for emergencies.
The International Association of Emergency Managers said in
April that state and local emergency management programs were
in "desperate need" of federal funding to meet new standards.
When the response plan was unveiled in January,
then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge called it "a bold
step forward in bringing unity in our response to disasters and
terrorist threats and attacks."
A month later, however, Bush's fiscal 2006 budget proposed
a 6 percent cut in funding for Emergency Management Performance
Grants, from the $180 million appropriated by Congress in 2005
to $170 million in 2006.
State and local officials protested what they saw as White
House cuts targeting the very program that would help them meet
Bush's new disaster-preparedness goals.
"The grants are the lifeblood for local programs and, in
some cases, it's the difference between having a program in a
county and not," said Dewayne West, the director of Emergency
Services for Johnston County, North Carolina, and president of
the International Association of Emergency Managers.
"It's awfully difficult," he said. "More money is needed."
The White House said it is unfair to characterize Bush's
budget for the performance grants as a "cut," since it was
Congress, not the White House, that had increased the funding
to $180 million in 2005.
Scott Milburn, spokesman for the Office of Management and
Budget, said there were several major grants programs
supporting state and local efforts, and that nearly 10 percent,
$268 million, went to emergency-planning activities.
According to a Congressional Research Service report, Bush
proposed $3.36 billion for state and local homeland-security
assistance programs for fiscal 2006 -- $250 million less than
these programs received from Congress in 2005.
Louisiana alone saw its funding for key Homeland Security
Department grant programs drop 26 percent in a year, to $42.6
million in 2005, an analysis by Democratic Louisiana Sen. Mary
Landrieu's office showed.
Bush, faced with the lowest approval ratings of his
presidency, has acknowledged poor coordination in the response
to Katrina and ordered a top-to-bottom review of U.S. disaster
Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke said
Chertoff also was frustrated at the lack of preparedness, and
had told lawmakers last month that urgent changes were needed.
"We were racing against the clock and now it's clear the clock
beat us," Knocke said.
So far, Chertoff is balking at appeals from Lieberman and
other lawmakers to delay proposed changes at FEMA until after a
review of the Katrina response. "At this point of time, we
continue to move forward," Knocke said.
© Copyright 2005 Reuters Ltd