Chertoff: I’m “retooling FEMA”

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced yesterday that he is “retooling FEMA” to better meet future challenges and address “lessons learned in Katrina.”

“Our effort is going to be designed to empower the men and women of FEMA to act with efficiency and urgency, to cut some of the bureaucracy out, and to let them do their job where it’s most needed, as quickly as possible,” he said. “We don’t want to stifle the people in the field with unnecessary bureaucratic process and procedure.”

Bureaucracy was cited as one of the major stumbling blocks in government response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita this year, and Chertoff announced in October his intentions of reorganizing the agency.

The White House is conducting a comprehensive review of “lessons learned in Katrina,” he said, and “in very short order, we’re going to announce measures that will allow us to build the capability of FEMA into a 21st century organization,” one that can deal with both routine and catastrophic events, he said.

“So I think in the next weeks you will be seeing that we come forward with some specific plans to strengthen FEMA’s logistic systems, give the leadership of the department better situational awareness about conditions on the ground, and to improve our customer service, our service to the people, who, after all, are our clients, the people who suffer when they are the focus of a catastrophe,” he said.

He defended FEMA personnel, however, saying that “I’m sure it’s not pleasant to see FEMA being made the butt of jokes and the butt of criticism even now, months after the hurricanes.”

“To the men and women of FEMA, let me say this: This department supports you a hundred percent; we acknowledge the extraordinary effort put in by FEMA employees who worked literally day and night to do what they could, sometimes with very inadequate tools, in order to help people who were in distress. We had people who were living in the Superdome with evacuees, who were suffering with the evacuees. And I think we deserve — they deserve our acknowledgment of their heroism and sacrifice.”