Congress Questions Readiness for Next Hurricane

Ahead of the upcoming hurricane season, the a House committee heard from federal emergency management officials on Wednesday about their planning for a major disaster. At the same time, a Senate committee held a confirmation hearing for David Paulison to be permanent head of FEMA.

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Top government officials say they are more ready than they've ever been to deal with another hurricane. Despite those assurances, members of Congress and local officials say that might not be enough. They worry there are still gaps in coordination and communications, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER reporting:

A big red flag for Washington, D.C., Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton was news that a planned evacuation drill at one Louisiana trailer park was cancelled this week because it wasn't clear who was in charge.

Representative ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (Democrat, Washington, D.C.): ...whose jurisdiction it was. Heavens! The notion that kind of basic understanding was not automatic could not be more troubling.

FESSLER: But federal officials told the House Government Reform Committee yesterday that these are just the kinds of kinks they're trying to work out before the start of a new storm season next week. George Foresman is under secretary of preparedness at the Department of Homeland Security.

Under Secretary GEORGE FORESMAN (Under Secretary of Preparedness, Department of Homeland Security): The organizational structures between local, state and federal, between public sector and private sector, between civilian and military, are clear, concise and understood. We are training, we are exercising, we are preparing together.

FESSLER: Foresman said the Federal Emergency Management Agency has stockpiled many more emergency supplies than it did prior to Hurricane Katrina, and that they'll be moved closer to potential disaster zones much sooner than before. He said there's also better communications equipment and a new system to track all those trucks filled with food, water and ice. Foresman said he's told state officials the federal government will be much more aggressive.

Under Secretary FORESMAN: That hot breath they're going to feel on the back of their neck are their federal partners behind them, ready to support them.

FESSLER: And also ready to jump in if state and local officials get overwhelmed.

Mississippi Emergency Management Director Robert Latham said he's happy to have the federal government breathing down his neck with supplies, as long as they coordinate with him.

Mr. ROBERT LATHAM (Emergency Management Director, Mississippi): It is so important that those be integrated into the plans that the state and local governments have, so that we don't have such a federal response that the state and local governments can't manage it.

FESSLER: Over in the Senate, lawmakers also raised concerns about coordination during the confirmation hearing for David Paulison, President Bush's nominee to head FEMA. Paulison has been acting director ever since Michael Brown left the agency last year, after the government's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.

Homeland Security Committee Chairwoman Susan Collins told Paulison that FEMA's reputation is shattered, in part because there are still problems with the Gulf Coast recovery.

Sen. SUSAN COLLINS (Chairwoman, Homeland Security Committee; Republican, Maine): Local officials tell us that debris removal still has not been completed. We know from the Army Corps of Engineers that the work on the levees is still not finished.

FESSLER: Even more disturbing, she said, is that the state of Louisiana clearly needs help, especially with plans to shelter tens of thousands of evacuees. Paulison agreed.

Mr. DAVID PAULISON (Acting Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency): We have to simply be there by their side. And that's what we're going to do.

FESSLER: He said his agency has sent in teams to help identify shortfalls in the states' plans so the federal government can fill in the gaps. But Foresman told the House panel that the details are still being worked out. He hopes a draft plan will be ready by next week. Both men said the situation in the Gulf Coast is especially difficult, because hundreds of thousands of residents now live in trailers and mobile homes, which make them vulnerable even in a tropical storm.

Paulison also acknowledged that FEMA itself is suffering from fatigue. Only about 85 percent of the agency's jobs are now filled, although he said he's working hard to get fully staffed in the coming weeks.

Mr. PAULISON: Our people are tired. A lot of them are literally working seven days a week. And so we have to have enough staff going in where there's going to be relief for them. A major concern for me, and it's one of my top priorities, quite frankly.

FESSLER: A top priority, if and when he's confirmed. Collins said she'd like the Committee to vote on the nomination later this week. That still leaves up in the air the future of FEMA. Many in Congress are so frustrated with the agency they want it revamped or even replaced.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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