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After the "dust" from the San Francisco area earthquake finally settles, Congress ought to take a new look at the Federal Emergency Management Agency with an eye to overhauling it.

FEMA is the federal organization responsible for coordinating the work of more than 20 agencies helping state and local governments cope with earthquake management.So far, FEMA seems to have done a good job in dealing with the California disaster. It responded quickly and vigorously. What a welcome contrast to FEMA's performance in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo, when federal assistance was slow in arriving and became mired in red tape.

A single impressive performance, however, should not be considered enough. One of FEMA's problems is that it does not yet have a permanent replacement for Julius Becton Jr. even though he stepped down as director early this year. The White House has had difficulty finding a successor with solid credentials. But that's understandable, since FEMA is saddled with many shortcomings not of its own making.

Because FEMA must deal not only with earthquakes but with a bewildering patchwork of programs, it lacks coherence. The resulting overlap and confusion create the potential for waste and fraud. These criticisms are anything but new, going back many years.

Though FEMA is a comparatively small federal agency, it can touch the lives of many Americans. Its role in civil defense, for example, is just one example of this agency's potential importance.

It's irresponsible for Congress to keep leaving FEMA on the sick list, and occasionally even starving it of funds, without pushing for reforms. A thorough reappraisal of FEMA is in order after America has put the worst of the latest earthquake disaster behind it.