Last week as Hurricane Irene churned toward the Atlantic Coast and New England, local and state emergency response teams, along with assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, (FEMA) prepared for the worst. At a Christian Science Monitor Breakfast on August 30, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano praised her department’s efforts to prepare for the hurricane and administer disaster relief once the storm made landfall.
Napolitano, who has served as a cabinet secretary in the Obama Administration for the past three years, tied FEMA’s response to Hurricane Irene to the overall efforts made by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to improve security and information sharing in the wake of the 9/11 attacks almost 10 years ago. Napolitano said that preparation for Hurricane Irene “reflected a lot of training and exercises that came out of September 11th with the creation of the department and the ability to get resources out to the local level.”
Since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the DHS has served as the umbrella agency for several agencies that focus on US security. Even though the agency has received strong criticism, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its ongoing management of the Transportation Security Administration, Napolitano believes that the United States is “categorically safer” and better prepared in the post 9/11 world. “We have many layers of security in place that didn’t exist before, beginning with intelligence gathering and information sharing,” she added.
Napolitano also praised former Bush Administration DHS secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff for creating a sound platform for further development. “Having been at the department now almost three years, building the DHS out of 22 agencies and creating that joint effort is a very challenging management task.”
In response to grumblings that Hurricane Irene was overhyped, Napolitano dismissed the criticism as “the blinding clarity of hindsight” and praised the response by local, state and federal officials. “The plain fact of the matter is that we all had to be prepared based on the best information available before the fact. This was a deadly storm.” Napolitano also alluded to significant damages to personal property and basic infrastructure that occurred outside New York City, particularly in New Jersey, North Carolina and Vermont, which were among the hardest-hit areas.
When asked if funding for disaster relief could become a victim of the ongoing budget battles between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill, Napolitano assured the group gathered at the Monitor breakfast that current relief programs for victims of Hurricane Irene as well as older programs for victims of this year’s tornadoes in Missouri and Alabama and flooding along Mississippi River basin would stay intact. She also stressed that political gridlock shouldn’t affect Congressional decisions when it comes to disaster management.
“That shouldn’t be the first concern of Congress,” Napolitano said. “The first concern should be what we need to protect the safety and security of the people we are privileged to represent.”