WASHINGTON -- Most of FEMA's problems in dealing with disasters can be fixed with better planning, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress yesterday. ''We are going to be very prepared for Hurricane Wilma," he said of the storm on the horizon.
Testifying before a special House committee created to probe the slow federal response to Katrina, Chertoff deflected questions about his own actions by telling lawmakers he had relied on Federal Emergency Management Agency specialists with decades of experience in hurricane response. ''I'm not a hurricane expert," he said often.
Chertoff's appearance came as weather forecasters kept a wary eye on Wilma, which grew into one of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes on record before weakening yesterday. Forecasters said it probably would strike the west coast of Florida late in the week.
At a separate House hearing, the governors of Florida, Texas, and Arizona urged lawmakers not to change the emergency response system that makes states the first responders during hurricanes and other emergencies.
''We can't do our jobs if the job is federalized," said Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat.
Chertoff, a former prosecutor and Justice Department official, took over the Homeland Security Department in February. A department-wide review he ordered was underway when Katrina hit, killing 1,200 people, flooding New Orleans, and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands.
Chertoff said FEMA was overwhelmed by the scope of Katrina.
''I think 80 percent or more of the problem goes to planning," he said, adding that FEMA's core budget has increased by 28 percent since 2001. He also dismissed suggestions by some lawmakers that FEMA lost its effectiveness when it was changed from an independent agency to a branch of Homeland Security.