As hurricane season nears, new FEMA director unpacks

McClatchy NewspapersMay 19, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Two weeks before hurricane season starts, President Barack Obama's pick to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency made his debut, stressing the importance of disaster preparedness at home.

"It's not just government, it's all of us," said Craig Fugate, Florida's former disaster chief, adding that the United States could "save more lives" if people looked out for each other in disasters.

His tips:

  • Develop a family disaster plan.
  • Take a disaster or first-aid training course and learn a skill.
  • In the event of a disaster, secure family first, and then go check on a neighbor.

"We're only going to be as successful as the public is in preparing," Fugate said, sounding a familiar theme for those in Florida, where he guided the state's disaster response during seasons of back-to-back hurricanes, including four in 2004.

He stressed cooperation between local and state governments and the federal government, but he noted that people in disaster-prone areas need to be prepared.

"There are a lot of folks who are going to need very specific help that should not have to compete with the rest of us who could have and should have done the things to protect our families," he said. "We can deal with these challenges as a team, but it is a team."

Fugate, whose nomination to run the troubled agency was held up by Republican Louisiana Sen. David Vitter because of concerns about agency policy, appeared at his first news briefing shortly after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano swore him in to his new job. He cleared the Senate last week with a unanimous vote, and Napolitano called him a "proven leader" who'll help the agency — rocked by its anemic response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — "reinvigorate our partnerships with state and local first responders."

The pair held a teleconference briefing with regional FEMA administrators and governors of more than a dozen hurricane-prone states, including Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue as well as officials from Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Rhode Island, Texas and Virginia. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour attended in person at FEMA headquarters.

Napolitano said the department had stepped up its hurricane-preparedness efforts, including holding a federal hurricane exercise with Cabinet members, White House staff and Obama.

"We want to make sure that the public is engaged and that we are redoubling our efforts to fill any gaps that we find as we prepare," she said.

She dismissed calls to move FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security, saying that the current arrangement works. Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee called last week for FEMA to become an independent, Cabinet-level agency to help improve its ability to respond to disasters.

"FEMA is still buried in a large department that has eroded its ability to be quick and agile," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.

However, Napolitano said there were "synergies" within DHS and FEMA, and the administration supports keeping it at DHS.

"From a management perspective, the better place for FEMA to be is within the department," she said.

She said that during major disasters Obama probably would communicate directly with Fugate.

"There's nothing about keeping FEMA within the department that precludes direct interaction between the president and the administrator," she said.

Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who lost his home to Hurricane Katrina, welcomed the Obama administration's new emergency-response team.

"The nation is better prepared than for Katrina," Taylor said, "starting with communications, which were horrible. Now people have satellite phones. Katrina was a learning experience."

Taylor said that Fugate's experience dealing with four hurricanes in 2004 meant that "he presumably learned" how to direct responses. "I'm hoping his time in Florida served him well," Taylor said.

In Mississippi, "most of the folks who went through Katrina are still with the National Guard, so I feel good about that," Taylor said.

"I think we're better prepared than we were. Thank God Michael Brown is gone," he said, referring to the former FEMA chief who bungled the Katrina response. "The nation is better off."

Asked about using the controversial FEMA trailers that housed people displaced by hurricanes, Fugate said he thought that the trailers might play a role, depending on the size of the disaster.

"We have to look at what are the types of options," he said, noting that many hurricane victims in Florida preferred trailers moved onto their properties as their homes were repaired.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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