Red tape hurt FEMA's response to Kentucky ice storm

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 26, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Publicly, local, state and federal officials have lauded federal efforts to respond to Kentucky's massive ice storm.

But behind the scenes, some state officials were frustrated by what they saw as communications problems and federal red tape that caused delays, the commanding general of the Kentucky Army and Air National Guard told members of Congress during a hearing on Thursday.

In one case, as ice felled trees and downed power lines across Kentucky, state officials were forced to wait three days for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide large generators capable of heating nursing homes. Initially, 50 generators of various sizes — far short of the 150 large generators required — were sent from the East Coast, housed at Fort Campbell and held there as officials followed dispersal protocols, Edward Tonini, the state's adjutant general, told members of the House Appropriations' Homeland Security subcommittee.

Tonini and state officials pushed for both a quicker release of the generators, additional large-capacity generators and the personnel to connect such equipment. Worried about delays, state officials were forced to hire local contractors to install the large generators at nursing homes.

"In a life-saving situation, you need to be able to throw out the book and just get it done," Tonini said.

After the hearing, a spokesman for Gov. Steve Beshear said that, while there were some problems during the recovery efforts, both the governor and Tonini are "very complimentary" of the federal response, particularly the leadership displayed by the Obama administration and U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano during the storm crisis.

"There are always glitches and momentary process issues that arise during a massive recovery and life-saving effort such as this one," said Jay Blanton, a spokesman for Beshear. "But, on balance, we were extremely pleased and, moreover, are very happy about the response from all levels of the Obama administration."

Those glitches include a case where a firefighter and National Guardsman from Ohio broke his leg while helping with the state's rescue efforts. Because the firefighter, who as a civilian usually makes $70,000 a year, was on National Guard duty when he was injured, he will receive only about 60 percent of his soldier's pay. And he barely has insurance coverage under workers' compensation while he recuperates for the next six months and struggles to pay medical bills for his two ill daughters, Tonini said.

"The system is broken, and it needs to be fixed," he said. "We need to take care of our people."

The winter storm ravaged much of the state, is blamed for more than 30 deaths, left 700,000 people without power at its peak, and caused nearly $200 million in damage, according to state emergency management estimates. So far, the federal government will pay 75 percent of the storm's recovery cost and pay for deploying the Kentucky National Guard.

State officials and members of Kentucky's congressional delegation are seeking 100 percent reimbursement of the costs of rescue efforts during the first seven days after the storm

In the meantime, Washington lawmakers are trying to assess whether under the Obama administration FEMA is able to respond in a timely manner to disasters. It is a sensitive subject for a federal agency that came under fire during the Bush administration for its response after Hurricane Katrina submerged many communities in the nation's Gulf Coast.

Obama declared a major disaster in Kentucky during the week after the ice storm. A previous federal disaster declaration, signed by Obama just days after the storm struck, brought federal help to many areas, with equipment such as generators to help run hospitals and water treatment plants.

Nancy Ward, acting administrator of FEMA, and Napolitano toured the devastation. On the ground, various local, state and federal agencies joined forces to help residents recover.

Beshear and other state officials generally have given FEMA good reviews for the agency's response, though officials in some Western Kentucky counties said they could have used more help right after the storm.

"The coordination of relief on the local, state, and federal levels has worked well in our district, and the National Guard has been invaluable," Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles shortly after the storm hit.

However, FEMA has a long way to go toward quickly assessing the scope of disasters such as Kentucky's ice storm and ensuring that aid is doled out efficiently, Tonini told the congressional panel.

Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, the committee's ranking Republican, stressed that FEMA has come a long way since Hurricane Katrina, when the agency was described as "broken" and "dysfunctional." The agency is undergoing a major recapitalization and will net a fresh infusion of funds.

During a telephone press conference with reporters on Thursday, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget Rob Nabors said the Obama administration is keenly aware of the need to account for such disasters in the budgeting process.

"We are seeing progress, even in the face of disasters as destructive as Hurricane Ike and as challenging as the recent winter storms that devastated parts of Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky," Rogers said. "Positive signs, for sure, but also sobering reminders that our nation is constantly under threat of natural disasters as well as acts of terrorism."

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