When disasters occur, be they man-made or natural, we turn to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for federal assistance. Most recently, our state suffered historic losses due to ice, sleet and freezing rain. Immediately after the storm, I traveled through some of the most devastated parts of Oklahoma and saw firsthand the extent of damage. Despite quick action by the state, FEMA was inefficient and slow to respond to the request for assistance – this is unacceptable. Oklahomans should expect more from FEMA and if I have my way, we will get it.
After 9/11, FEMA was removed as a stand-alone agency under the jurisdiction of the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee (which I chaired) and was integrated under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This transition added an extra level of bureaucracy and removed much of the oversight and autonomy that once kept FEMA operating efficiently. As ranking member of the EPW committee, I can site dozens of examples where FEMA provided better service before it became part of DHS. For this reason, I am introducing legislation that will remove FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and will return it to its pre-9/11 status as an independent agency led by a presidential appointee.
Oklahomans are all too familiar with FEMA’s shortcomings since 9/11. After wildfires ravaged the plains of Oklahoma last summer and blizzards and ice storms left a wake of destruction throughout the state this winter, Oklahomans rightfully looked to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for help. In both instances, we were left frustrated by slow and inefficient responses.
It wasn’t until several of Oklahoma’s elected officials applied heavy-handed pressure to FEMA that our state was able to receive any federal aid for last summer’s wildfires. Due to that experience, when the most recent ice storm hit Oklahoma I was prepared to go directly to the President and demand assistance if FEMA did not respond quickly. Though Governor Henry acted immediately and President Bush shortly followed suit, Oklahomans were left suffering for weeks before FEMA finally took action. Even then, the response was dismal at best and several communities have yet to be afforded relief.
FEMA’s inefficiencies are unacceptable and something must change NOW. My legislation will make FEMA more responsive and more efficient, creating an agency that will serve the American people to a level that is expected when these life changing events occur. Oklahoma will recover, we always do, but we deserve better from the very agencies that are funded by the taxes we pay.