Changes to FEMA Operations Expected
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
2005 was not a good year for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA Director Michael Brown was forced to resign after the government's failed response to Hurricane Katrina, and the agency's name became synonymous with bureaucratic ineptitude. Well, now with another hurricane season just five months away, efforts are under way to fix some of FEMA's problems. NPR's Pam Fessler has the story.
PAM FESSLER reporting:
In the Edgewood neighborhood of New Orleans, it's easy to find those who still have grievances with FEMA. Truck driver Sylvester Scott wonders if he's ever going to hear back from that FEMA inspector who came weeks ago to look at his damaged house.
Mr. SYLVESTER SCOTT (Truck Driver): We just haven't heard nothing back from them. They came out and the guy came, and he went through the house. He went on the roof, went around checked all the damage and stuff, and that was a couple of months ago. Haven't heard not one word from no one.
FESSLER: So Scott is moving ahead on his own, making roof repairs and replacing appliances with help from an insurance policy. Neighbor Derek Fleming(ph) is also frustrated. He's trying to decide whether he, his wife and three children should move back into their wind-damaged home. That's because he's been unable to find out whether FEMA will cover his January rent at the apartment where they've been staying since the storm.
Mr. DEREK FLEMING (New Orleans Resident): The people they have that's working the phone systems and everything, half of them don't even know the information that you request from them when you call. They tell you different things. And I'm going through them with fighting battle right now for the rental assistance because I'm not employed right now.
FESSLER: Similar complaints about confusing programs and government red tape can be heard throughout the Gulf region. In fact, whether it's warranted or not, FEMA is blamed for just about everything that goes wrong here, as the agency's acting director is well aware.
Mr. DAVID PAULISON (Acting Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency): We're the only ones out there. We are the target. There's no question about it.
FESSLER: Director David Paulison knows his agency has a big job ahead repairing both its image and its ability to respond to disaster. He says people at FEMA are among the hardest working government employees he's ever met, but this year that wasn't enough.
Mr. PAULISON: We did not have good situation awareness in Katrina. We didn't know what was going on. The people on the ground didn't know what was going on, the people in Washington didn't know what was going on.
FESSLER: And everyone could see that, especially when top officials were caught on national television and radio unaware that thousands of New Orleanians were stranded at the city's convention center. Officials have also admitted they didn't know the city's levees had broken until 24 hours after the fact.
Paulison's boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, is expected to announce changes soon at FEMA. Paulison says the agency will now have reconnaissance teams ready to go to any disaster area and quickly report back on the extent of damage and where help is needed. FEMA will also set up a tracking system, so it knows where emergency supplies are at any given moment, something it couldn't do in Katrina.
Mr. PAULISON: You have people waiting in line to get some food and water and a couple bag of ice, and we could not tell them when that truck was going to arrive. Everybody else can do it. Wal-Mart knows where their trucks are. FedEx knows where their trucks are. So we should be able to do that, too.
FESSLER: Paulison also vows before the next hurricane that FEMA workers will have much better communications equipment. Chertoff made the startling admission at one congressional hearing that he was unable to reach FEMA Director Brown the day after Hurricane Katrina hit until about 8 that night, despite repeated attempts during the day.
One change the administration is not considering is removing FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security, where it was put more than two years ago. Many lawmakers and emergency managers think that greatly weakened the agency. James Lee Witt, who headed FEMA in the Clinton administration, told a recent Washington gathering that FEMA needs to be independent and to oversee preparedness training and exercises across the country.
Mr. JAMES LEE WITT (Former FEMA Director): That relationship-building across state government and local governments in emergency management, from not only FEMA headquarters but all FEMA's 10 regions--that day-to-day relationship is so important. That's how you build preparedness.
FESSLER: But Chertoff thinks the job should stay inside Homeland Security, and he has proposed a new preparedness directorate to deal with both natural and manmade disasters. Congress has gone along so far, but it's not clear what will happen after two committees complete their investigations into the Katrina response in mid-February and make their own recommendations. In any event, Paulison knows his agency will likely be tested again soon when the next hurricane arrives.
Mr. PAULISON: The proof will be in the pudding, so to speak, you know. If we perform well, FEMA's image will come back. If we don't, then it won't. You know, as long as I'm here, we're going to perform well.
FESSLER: Along the Gulf Coast, victims of Hurricane Katrina are waiting to be convinced. Pam Fessler, NPR News.