Obama, Congress Can Improve FEMA, Homeland Security


Dec 21, 2008

By Melissa Flournoy

This commentary originally appeared in The Press-Register on December 21, 2008.

In his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama pledged to rebuild the Gulf Coast — one of the country's most wounded, yet economically strategic, regions.

To keep this laudable promise, he will need to make a sustained commitment not only to a national disaster recovery plan, but also a comprehensive economic development strategy for the Gulf Coast — one that holistically addresses the wide range of social, environmental and economic barriers inhibiting the redevelopment of the region.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the failure of the levees in New Orleans devastated the region. While the immediate tasks of recovery — debris removal, emergency housing provision, and infrastructure repair — were largely addressed, there is still long-term recovery work to be done.

As we see our neighbors in Texas and western Louisiana confront similar challenges following the impact of Hurricane Ike in September, we realize the enormity of the challenges facing our own region and the need to improve the federal and state disaster response efforts.

We have made improvements in coordination, but the Stafford Act still limits an effective response in many ways. (The Stafford Act created the system in place today by which a presidential disaster declaration of an emergency triggers financial and physical assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.)

Congress and the president have the opportunity to improve emergency response and intergovernmental coordination within the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA to expeditiously deliver aid to devastated Gulf Coast communities.

The last three years on the Gulf Coast have challenged the resiliency of families and the economy as we work to overcome some of the long-term systemic barriers to improving access to health care and in rebuilding affordable housing, schools and our neighborhoods.

The new president, in partnership with Southern governors, needs to critically assess the problems facing the Gulf region, identify policy goals, determine effective state and federal strategies, and set priorities for public investment.

Three years after the storm, the needs of the region are different. National attention to the unfinished business in the Gulf region has faded. We need a renewed focus to energize the recovery and focus on the future so that we do not miss a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Regional stakeholders, policy makers and community leaders are willing to view policy challenges through a more comprehensive, regionally integrated lens. The inauguration of a new administration presents a unique opportunity to think beyond hurricane response and toward a comprehensive blueprint for Gulf Coast economic development.

And yet, the Gulf Coast's redevelopment is not just a regional issue. At the intersection of the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean, our many deep-water ports and rail lines make the region a strategic economic hub for the entire country.

Seven of the nation's top 10 ports in terms of tonnage or cargo value are located along the Gulf Coast. From Florida to Texas, the robust oil and gas infrastructure of America's energy coast is equally critical to fueling the national economy.

Protecting these assets and promoting the development of the region that supports them is a critical component to a national economic recovery strategy and should be a national priority.

Melissa Flournoy is director of the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute, part of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

This op-ed was also carried by the Montgomery Advertiser, the Monroe News-Star, the Gulfport Sun-Herald, the Shreveport Times, and the Clarion-Ledger.

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