Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

FEMA Is `Not Waiting' for the Winds to Die Down Applying Lessons Learned from Hurricane Andrew, the Federal Emergency Management Agency Is Getting a Jump on Emily's Cleanup

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

FEMA Is `Not Waiting' for the Winds to Die Down Applying Lessons Learned from Hurricane Andrew, the Federal Emergency Management Agency Is Getting a Jump on Emily's Cleanup

Article excerpt

A YEAR ago, four days passed from the predawn landfall of hurricane Andrew on the south Florida coast to when federal forces mobilized for disaster relief.

The next day, the first 7,000 troops arrived, and the largest disaster-relief operation in American history got under way. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) - charged with coordinating the federal response - never caught up with public expectations after that four-day late start.

Not this time.

This past weekend, FEMA dispatched 12 tractor-trailer rigs from Miami north toward the anticipated Aug. 31 landfall of hurricane Emily. The trucks carried tents, cots, plastic sheeting, generators, and chain saws.

The agency's leaders were determined to be ready to descend quickly as soon as the first request for federal aid came in. They were also letting people know they were on the job, helping to mobilize local readiness with public-service announcements on the approaching hurricane distributed to broadcast stations in the eastern Carolinas as early as Aug. 27.

Unlike during the approach of Andrew, which was a much larger hurricane than Emily, FEMA headquarters in Washington went on 24-hour alert Aug. 30 to carry on the mobilizing of forces.

FEMA shows what disaster-management expert Louise Comfort calls a "fundamental shift in attitude" since hurricane Andrew. It has shifted from the passive posture of waiting to react to requests from governors for aid to a pro-active stance of anticipating needs.

"We're just on the ground faster," says FEMA spokesman David Martin. "We're not waiting around."

The federal government, by law, must still wait until a written request arrives from a state governor before declaring a federal emergency and activating its relief forces. The formal sequence of response is still that local governments are directly responsible for preparedness and immediate disaster relief, followed by state governments, and then supported by federal assistance.

After Andrew hit, Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) waited almost four days before requesting federal aid, hoping that the Florida National Guard could handle the relief. By then, President Bush had already appointed Transportation Secretary Andrew Card to coordinate relief efforts.

But the legal formalities offered little shelter to FEMA against a public whose expectations of federal help were kept waiting. Among widespread criticisms of FEMA's management and structure post-Andrew, some called for abolition altogether.

FEMA is still not a state-of-the-art disaster-response agency, in the view of many outside experts in the field. Robert Kupperman, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who called for dissolving FEMA last year, still says the agency should be replaced with a smaller team managing disaster response within the White House, so that it could mobilize the resources of the federal government with White House authority and overview. …

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