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Ex-FEMA official: Agency better when independent

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John Copenhaver, a former FEMA regional director

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    Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
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    (CNN) -- A Senate panel chastised the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Thursday, saying the disaster response organization needs to be scrapped.

    Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the agency's response to Hurricane Katrina showed FEMA is "is beyond repair."

    John Copenhaver, a former regional director of FEMA, spoke Thursday with CNN anchor Miles O'Brien about the agency's future -- and past.

    O'BRIEN: "Part of [Collins'] statement which came out yesterday, is this: "FEMA is in a shambles and beyond repair, and it should be abolished."

    Do you agree with that statement?

    COPENHAVER: I agree that FEMA has had tremendous problems. I agree that it, to some extent, needs serious revamping. But I don't think that it should be abolished.

    I think that that's the wrong thing to do, and abolishing it and recreating another agency is simply reinventing the wheel, and potentially with the same kind of problems that have happened to FEMA over the past five years.

    O'BRIEN: ... Certainly people are familiar with what we saw in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. ... Was it a question of the organization of FEMA, or was it the leadership at FEMA and also the Department of Homeland Security?

    COPENHAVER: The problems really lie in both areas, in structure and in leadership. The way that FEMA was structured when it was put under the Department of Homeland Security was, in my opinion, a mistake.

    I think that FEMA should have been left as an independent Cabinet-level agency. And also, the leadership question is clearly one that caused problems for FEMA.

    I think that if you look back to Hurricane Andrew, after Hurricane Andrew [in 1992], the same kinds of calls for the abolishment of FEMA were heard. But FEMA was not abolished. It was given good, solid leadership, and it was given independent Cabinet-level agency status, and it worked.

    O'BRIEN: Well, let's -- yes, let's go back to that for just a moment, because the proposal that's out there, what I have seen of it, is, create a new agency but still put it under the Department of Homeland Security umbrella. You're suggesting that maybe [that] isn't the place for it?

    COPENHAVER: My suggestion is that we take a look at the model of an agency that did work. Back in the late '90s, back around the year 2000, FEMA was an agency that actually got the job done.

    It was an independent Cabinet-level agency with good leadership that got the job done. And why we're not looking at that model I don't understand. It's something that did work.

    O'BRIEN: Well, you know, it's interesting though. I'm sure you've thought about it. If that FEMA, that FEMA in that brief period of time that you say was set up properly and worked, if it had been in existence around Katrina, would it have been a dramatically different response?

    COPENHAVER: I believe that it would have been. It's hard to say, because there will be people with different opinions that say that's Monday morning quarterbacking. And that's really sour grapes coming from somebody that used to be a part of the organization and is no longer.

    As I tell people, I lost my job in a hostile takeover. But the truth of the matter is that my belief is that FEMA would have worked and would have worked more effectively because it would have been able to access the president more quickly and it would have been able to bring in the military more effectively. And I believe that the outcome would have been different.

    O'BRIEN: But let me ask you this though. The whole notion of Department of Homeland Security, the idea, at least, is to put a lot of these overlapping and agencies that need to work together in times of crises under one roof, so to speak. FEMA needs to draw upon all those agencies in order to do its job. So, shouldn't it remain under the Department of Homeland Security?

    COPENHAVER: No. I believe it should not. FEMA was able to draw upon those very same agencies and departments using the federal response plan back six years ago.

    And at that point in time, FEMA was able to coordinate through the mechanism of the federal response plan the offering of assistance from all of those different federal agencies and departments and do it effectively. So I don't think that we gained anything by putting FEMA under the Department of Homeland Security.

    O'BRIEN: ... Do you think it's likely there's going to be a disbanding of FEMA at this juncture?

    COPENHAVER: I hope not. I hope that cooler heads prevail and that people take a look at what FEMA still is capable of doing.

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