New FEMA head must regain independence, ex-chiefs say

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NEW YORK (AP) – Two former chiefs of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Friday that its new director is destined to fail unless the agency gets better funding and regains independence from the Department of Homeland Security.

James Lee Witt, who ran FEMA during the Clinton administration, and Michael Brown, who resigned after Hurricane Katrina, praised R. David Paulison but said he has been given an impossible job.

“The current structure of FEMA is not going to allow anyone to succeed. It just cannot be done,” said Brown, who was briefly interrupted during a panel discussion by a heckler angry about the agency’s failures in New Orleans.

The Bush administration has been widely criticized for its sluggish response to Katrina.

But Brown and Witt said the agency lost funding and focus when it was absorbed into a giant Homeland Security bureaucracy, making it difficult since at least 2003 to attract qualified people to top jobs.

Spokesmen for FEMA and Homeland Security had no immediate comment.

Homeland Security officials have acknowledged that several candidates to replace Brown had balked at taking the post before Paulison agreed.

“Unless they pull FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security and put it back as an independent agency, then he’s asking for failure,” Witt said during the session at the New School.

Paulison, a former fire chief in Miami, has been FEMA’s interim director since September. President Bush nominated him Thursday to be permanent head of the agency. His selection awaits Senate confirmation.

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