Thursday, April 13, 2006

FEMA to Public - Be prepared to handle emergencies without their help

Changes at FEMA as storm season nears
By Jim Loney

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Sharply criticized for a sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, top U.S. emergency officials on Wednesday announced an overhaul of disaster relief planning but put the onus on local responders and warned Americans to be better prepared.

With the hurricane season just seven weeks away, local emergency managers expressed skepticism about changes at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying the government bureaucracy was no better prepared to deal with a devastating hurricane than it was last year.

Acting FEMA director David Paulison, speaking to emergency managers at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando, said FEMA is installing satellite tracking of disaster supplies and stationing federal officials in coastal states. But he said local officials were the first line of defense.

Paulison told Americans they had to take "personal responsibility" for storm planning and be ready to cope with the effects of a big storm without help.

"I believe it is a civic responsibility for Americans to prepare themselves to take care of their families for the first 72 hours," said Paulison, who has been nominated to take the job permanently and awaits confirmation from Congress.

He was named interim director of FEMA last year after the resignation of Michael Brown following the agency's widely criticized response to Katrina in August.

The storm burst the levees protecting New Orleans, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless. Tens of thousands were stranded in flooded houses, hospitals, nursing homes and the Superdome sports stadium. About 40,000 were rescued.

Katrina killed about 1,300 people across the Gulf coast and caused at least $80 billion in damage.


FEMA was scrutinized after its poor response and more than 100 recommendations made for improvements, including removing it from the Department of Homeland Security into which it had been absorbed.

Paulison and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said they expected to have some of the recommendations in place by June 1, the official start of the hurricane season.

FEMA disaster planners will be stationed in coastal states, communications systems are being improved and stocks of water, ice, pharmaceuticals and other supplies are being replenished.

FEMA is upgrading its phone-in aid systems to allow it to register 200,000 people a day and installing a global positioning satellite tracking system for supplies. Much of the aid for Katrina sat idle because no one knew where it was.

Chertoff warned hospitals and nursing homes to be prepared to care for, and if necessary, to evacuate their charges.

He pledged to pressure oil companies to make sure fuel was available, saying: "We've got to get gas stations up and running and we've got to get fuel into the trucks."

But local disaster response planners say FEMA was decimated when it was moved into Homeland Security after the September 11 attacks and will not improve unless it is made an independent agency again.

"FEMA lost their expertise, their ability to help local governments," said John Murray, emergency management director with the Corpus Christi fire department in Texas.

Paulison told reporters he believed FEMA belonged under Homeland Security because it gave him access to assets like the Coast Guard that are critical in a disaster.

But Don McKinnon, emergency management director for Jones County, Mississippi, said he had no confidence that FEMA had been fixed. "None whatsoever. We're in the same position we were in last year," he said.

"I liked FEMA as a stand-alone agency. They understood the business because that's the business they were in."