Opening Statement - Senator Jeffords

Clean Air, Climate Change, and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee Hearing

GAO Report on FEMA activates in NYC after Sept 11

And General Oversight on the Federal Emergency Management Agency

September 24, 2003 9:00 a.m.

 

Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing today. 

 

It is a little disturbing for me to see the words “General Accounting Office Report”, which often precede what some might consider to be a mundane financial disclosure statement, preceding the words “September 11th” which was such an emotional, traumatic moment in our nation’s history for everyone in our country, and particularly for the people directly affected by it. 

 

I will never forget my visit to Ground Zero. 

 

I hope that September 11th is an event that will never be repeated, on any scale, in our country.  However, I believe that it is critical for us to be prepared, should such an event occur.  I want to do everything I can to ensure that our level of preparedness goes up, not down, as we move into the future.  One of the best ways is to evaluate our performance on September 11th, and find ways that we can improve.  That is why I asked for this GAO report with my colleagues, Senator Smith of New Hampshire, Senator Clinton of New York, and Senator Voinovich. 

 

Since Senator Inhofe became Chairman of this committee, we have continued working on this issue with the same bi-partisan rapport I enjoyed with Senator Smith, and I appreciate that. 

 

The GAO report finds that there were multiple activities performed by FEMA at the World Trade Center that were outside of the norm.  Congress explicitly authorized many of these activities.  The GAO report also finds that due to the departure from standard emergency response and recovery operations, there is some uncertainty about what the federal response to another terrorist attack would be, should one occur. 

 

It is imperative that this Committee, with jurisdiction over the nation’s emergency preparedness and response activities, consider whether any changes to FEMA’s legislative authorities are required to ensure that the nation’s ability to respond to a terrorist attack improves after September 11th.  

 

I look forward to hearing more detail on the conclusions of the GAO.

 

As we discuss FEMA’s September 11th public assistance response, I would be remiss if I ignored the recent report by the EPA Inspector General raising questions about the government's response to the World Trade Center collapse. 

 

In addition to troubling revelations about the White House's Council on Environmental Quality influencing EPA's public communications, the report questions the extent and adequacy of the post September 11th indoor air cleanup program. 

 

This program was funded, in part, by FEMA, and I believe that we need to examine whether there are additional steps that FEMA, in conjunction with other governmental agencies, should take today to protect the health of all New Yorkers.

 

In reviewing the activities of FEMA in September of 2001, we will be reviewing the activities of a robust agency, with extensive experience in all-hazards planning, preparing, response, and recovery, and with a tradition of providing quick response to people in immediate need. 

 

Vermont has a long history with emergency management – my colleague and friend, Senator Bob Stafford of Vermont, served as chairman of this committee for many years and ushered the Stafford Act through this Committee and the legislative process in 1974. 

 

The Stafford Act gave structure to an emergency response process where virtually none existed in the past. 

 

As Chairman of this Committee during the 107th Congress, I expressed grave concerns since the proposal to incorporate FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security first came to my attention. 

 

I was concerned at that time that the robust agency we saw jumping every hurdle after September 11, 2001 to provide assistance to World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and to hundreds of natural disasters each year, would give way under the pressure of the enormous bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security and lose its ability to respond quickly and effectively to disasters. 

 

I remain concerned today.

 

However, the Administration prevailed in this situation and incorporated FEMA in DHS with the enactment of the Homeland Security Act of 2002.   Since the formation of DHS, FEMA has administered aid for 50 major disasters, 16 emergency declarations, and 33 fire management assistance declarations – all natural disasters.  That is 109 communities, in less than one year, that have received emergency assistance from the Federal Government.  One would think that this type of mission would deserve significant focus from the Administration. 

 

However, while FEMA performed all of this activity, the Administration managed to allow the Disaster Relief Fund to dip dangerously low, with FEMA cutting off benefits for all but two of the seven categories of public assistance in declared disaster areas. 

 

On July 9, the Administration finally asked Congress for $1.5 billion in emergency funding to refill the Disaster Relief Fund.  This week, the Congress may consider the conference report for the Legislative Branch appropriations, which contains just $441.7 million for the Disaster Relief Fund. 

 

We are still in the early days of this disaster, and I have heard some concerns raised by local communities about FEMA’s responsiveness.  I hope that as we work our way through the effects of this disaster, we find that even with FEMA’s insertion into DHS and the lack of focus the Agency has received, it has lived up to its reputation of a quick responder that provides critical assistance. 

 

I have two goals for today’s hearing.  First, I want to hear what lessons can be learned from FEMA’s activities in New York following September 11th, and what changes, if any, you believe this Committee should consider to ensure that our nation’s emergency response capabilities improve, not degrade into the future.  Second, I want to hear from each of our witnesses how things have changed since FEMA became part of DHS – specifically, if being a part of the Department of Homeland Security is improving or degrading FEMA’s ability to respond to disasters of all types, whether manmade or natural. 

 

It is imperative that in seeking to improve our capability to respond to terrorism, we do not lose our capability to respond to natural disasters, which, thankfully, happen much more frequently. 

 

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.