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FEMA chief says agency has learned lessons from Katrina

WASHINGTON—Federal Emergency Management Agency director David Paulison, chosen to head the troubled disaster-relief agency in the aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina debacle, said Thursday it has made huge strides in the 15 months since the historic storm.

Paulison, a former firefighter picked by President Bush to rebuild FEMA's ability and reputation, pointed to a series of organizational and procedural changes that are designed to clarify the roles of the various federal, state and local agencies during a disaster and to speed relief to those stricken.

While Paulison was bullish on the changes at his agency, which was roundly criticized for its failures during Katrina, there has been little independent evaluation of FEMA's new actions to improve its response.

In a report on Sept. 6, the Government Accountability Office found that "there is little information available on the extent to which these changes are operational."

During his speech at the National Press Club, Paulison ticked off more than a dozen improvements driven by the need to operate under a new vision.

"All responses are local, but we no longer wait for local folks and the states to be overwhelmed before we step in." he said. "That old model simply does not work. It has to be an all-for-one, one-for-all type of response."

Paulison said his agency has made dramatic changes since Katrina, some of them required by a FEMA-overhaul bill Bush signed into law eight weeks ago.

"It was a wakeup call for all of us," Paulison said of Katrina. "We've all learned a lot of lessons. The biggest single failure in Katrina was communications and how we shared information."

Paulison said he doesn't agree with some lawmakers' calls to make FEMA an independent department again, saying its inclusion in Department of Homeland Security helps improve coordination with other agencies. Paulison said he has frequent and direct contact with Bush.

In a series of questions from reporters, Paulison declined to directly answer when asked whether New Orleans levees that collapsed in Katrina's aftermath should be built to withstand Category 5 hurricanes—rare but the most powerful storms.

"I support all levees (in the country) being the best they can possibly be," he said.

Paulison said people in evacuation zones need to take personal responsibility, adding that those who refuse to leave increase the burden on first responders.

In a related matter, Paulison expressed surprise over a federal judge's ruling Wednesday that the federal government must make immediate payments to 11,000 displaced Gulf Coast families.

"I was very disappointed in the judge's decision," Paulison said. "This is almost one of those things where no good deed goes unpunished. We felt we did the right thing."

District Judge Richard Leon said FEMA failed to give enough notice to the 11,000 families or to adequately explain why agency was cutting off their aid.

Paulison, though, said FEMA extended the temporary housing aid to thousands of Katrina victims for up to 60 days longer than required by law. He declined to say whether the government would appeal the court ruling.

Noting that some Florida residents still have FEMA-funded temporary housing because of 2004 storms, Paulison said, "FEMA can't house people forever."

A Miami native, Paulison ran the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department from 1992 to 2001. He headed the emergency-preparedness division of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security in 2003 and 2004. Congress folded FEMA into DHS in the legislation establishing the super-agency.

Jonathan Lee, who works in Washington for a management consulting firm, grew up on Hilton Head Island, S.C. He and his family were evacuated before Hurricane Hugo struck the Carolinas in 1989, though Hilton Head was spared. Lee also endured Hurricane Fran in 1996 while he was a student at Campbell University in North Carolina.

Lee agreed that people must take personal responsibility, but he said many folks grow numb to danger after repeated evacuations.

"People get sick of leaving," Lee said. "If you live in a hurricane zone, you're evacuated three times a year. After 30 years, Hilton Head in my lifetime hasn't been hit by a major storm. Yet people there have been evacuated at least once a year."

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LESSONS LEARNED

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has made great strides in the 15 months since the Hurricane Katrina debacle, director David Paulison said Thursday.

He was named the head of FEMA in September 2005, less than a month after Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast.

Here are the main changes Paulison cited, some of them mandated by a FEMA overhaul bill that President Bush signed into law Oct. 4:

Bureaucratic improvements:

_Nine of FEMA's 10 regional offices have permanent directors with extensive disaster-management experience, with candidates for the 10th being interviewed now. Only two had such leaders when Katrina hit.

_Closer ties within the Department of Homeland Security with Border Control, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Department, the National Guard and other agencies involved in disaster response.

_A new partnership with the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency, which is expert in moving supplies quickly from shipping goods to U.S. troops around the world.

_Clarified roles for local, state and federal agencies around the country. Regular meetings with governors and local-disaster managers. Can videoconference with representatives from all states.

_"Memos of understanding" specifying the jobs of private firms, the Red Cross and other volunteer groups.

Operational upgrades:

_New "first teams" can deploy quickly, using video cameras to shoot and distribute pictures of destruction nationwide via computer.

_Four times more emergency supplies on hand, enough to feed 1 million people for a week; some of it already sent to vulnerable areas.

_"Total Asset Visibility": 20,000 trucks and other vehicles have global positioning system devices, which enable managers to find them immediately.

_"Contingency contracts" that outside suppliers, builders and other vendors can use when disaster hits.

_Debris registry of 300 approved nationwide contractors whom people can contact immediately.

_Beefed-up customer service. Higher call capacity that can register 200,000 people a day. Mobile registration centers that go to stranded people.

_Increased home inspections, to 20,000 a day.

_Better tools to prevent and identify aid fraud and abuse.

_Outside experts hired to train FEMA staff in human resources, budgeting, procurement, data management and other areas.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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