Two years ago this month, Hurricane Katrina made landfall, destroying both the Gulf Coast and the reputation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when it failed to carry out its mission of coordinating disaster relief.
The Department of Homeland Security agency since then has been the butt of jokes on late night talk shows, a punching bag on Capitol Hill and the "most ridiculed agency in government," according to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Revamping FEMA has been the responsibility of its administrator, R. David Paulison, who took over the agency in the weeks following Katrina.
"FEMA is a new organization," Paulison told National Defense. "I hate to say this, but it's almost like you're going to have to have a major event to show that we have changed."
Key to restoring its reputation will be the timely delivery of emergency supplies to victims of natural or man-made disasters.
When Katrina struck, "there was no tracking system in place. Once the truck left the warehouses, they were just lost as far as we were concerned," he said. Trucks carrying meals ready to eat, medical supplies, water and ice showed up at the wrong places and the wrong time.
Congress and the Bush administration, both of whom critics said failed to adequately fund the agency after 9/11 and then buried it in layers of bureaucracy within the Department of Homeland Security, have now boosted FEMA's budget and passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 to set the agency straight.
It has used these funds to purchase 20,000 global positioning system units to track trailers carrying commodities on a giant screen at the agency's headquarters in Washington, Paulison said. FEMA is attempting to take supply-chain management principles--common in the private sector--and apply them to the agency, which was still using paper maps to track supplies in September 2005, he added.
The Defense Logistics Agency has lent its time and personnel to help FEMA improve the new commodity tracking system. It also hired away one of the DLA's top officers to lead its efforts.
Next will be adding "third-party logistics" into the mix, Paulison said. "Instead of doing everything ourselves, let's use systems that are out there" such as UPS, FedEx and large trucking companies, he said. "That's where we're heading."
"We should have enough for an initial surge, but then have the private sector move it with the...