Has FEMA Recovered From Hurricane Katrina? Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent humanitarian disaster in New Orleans focused an uncomfortable spotlight on FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA became a lighting rod for criticism of the government's lackluster response to the disaster. Five years later, FEMA has undergone some changes.

Has FEMA Recovered From Hurricane Katrina?

Has FEMA Recovered From Hurricane Katrina?

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Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent humanitarian disaster in New Orleans focused an uncomfortable spotlight on FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA became a lighting rod for criticism of the government's lackluster response to the disaster. Five years later, FEMA has undergone some changes.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center shows most Americans believe�the country is no better prepared to handle such natural disasters today than it was when Katrina hit in 2005.�FEMA, the government agency responsible for disaster response was widely criticized in the wake of Katrina. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency has undergone a major overhaul since then and says it's now ready when called on. NPR's Brian Naylor has our story.

BRIAN NAYLOR: The images from New Orleans in the days after Katrina are indelible. Families on rooftops waiting to be rescued, crowds in the Superdome and outside the New Orleans Convention Center with desperation, fear and disbelief in their eyes.�And voices, like James Ackerson's,�pleading.

Mr. JAMES ACKERSON: They need help back there. They desperately need help in the lower 9th ward. Please help them.�

NAYLOR: That help was painfully slow to arrive. The blame was placed largely on the federal government, and one agency in particular, FEMA,�the Federal Emergency Management Agency.�FEMA's�beleaguered administrator at the time was Michael Brown, a political appointee, whose performance President George W. Bush famously defended.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Again, I want to thank you all for... And, Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job.

NAYLOR: But reports afterwards found the agency had been unprepared to deal with a catastrophe the size of Katrina.�FEMA, which had recently been absorbed into the newly formed Department of Homeland Security,�had lost many of its most experienced leaders.�The new managers had never worked with, and didn't know, their state and local counterparts.�Responders were slow in arriving, communications were faulty, logistics non existent.

Five years later, much has changed with FEMA, starting at the top.�Craig Fugate, the agency's administrator since last year, is a veteran emergency manager. When he headed Florida's emergency office, Fugate was given high marks for his response to several hurricanes, including Katrina. Fugate's mantra for FEMA?

Mr. CRAIG FUGATE (Federal Emergency Management Agency): We're not the team. We're part of a team�and it involves a lot of different players.�But we also have an opportunity to use our position, to use the bully pulpit to talk about issues, but also to use our programs to drive change - through planning guidance, through grants and through exercises and training - to actually start driving some of these lessons learned.�

NAYLOR: One of the lessons learned, Fugate has surrounded himself with lieutenants who also come from state and local emergency management backgrounds. They've reached out to government and community groups, and have contracts with private suppliers ready to go. There is a mobile version of FEMA's website for use on smartphones. And the agency plans to use social media like Facebook to communicate with people before during and after a disaster.�

In Katrina, it was the poorest of the poor who needed the most help. They lacked cars, much less smartphones. But Fugate says FEMA has, as he puts it,�stopped planning for the easy and now plans for the real.

Mr. FUGATE: What really makes up a community? Well, up to 25 percent are going to be children under the age, you know, of 18. You're going to have people with disabilities. You're going to have people that have pets who aren't going to leave their animals behind. And probably the one issue that cuts across a lot of this is the existing poverty that occurs, particularly in areas that may be vulnerable.

NAYLOR: Fugate says those community issues must be addressed at the start of planning for disaster, not tacked on at the end. His approach makes good sense says Stephen Flynn, president�of the Center for National Policy.

Mr. STEPHEN FLYNN (President, Center for National Policy): There's been significant progress in FEMA being more mission oriented, let's say, more focused on getting in early and being helpful right away; but also on the front end, being more engaged with the communities and dealing with crises in advance of something going wrong.

NAYLOR: Gulf coast residents are praying that they'll be spared another Katrina-type storm, especially this year.�They're still dealing with the BP oil spill, and the millions of barrels of oil that may remain in the Gulf. Shirley Laska, a sociology professor at the University of New Orleans says the government's response to that latest crisis does not bode well for its response to another hurricane.

Professor SHIRLEY LASKA (Sociology, University of New Orleans): Sadly, the government response - the federal government response - brought the same kinds of questions: Who is in charge? Why isn't there a systematic mobilization? How can the local organizations and communities be supported in responding quickly and adequately? I think that the answer is that we don't have federal capacity to respond to catastrophes yet.

NAYLOR: Fugate thinks otherwise, and FEMA may have a chance to prove itself, as forecasters say this could be a very active hurricane season.�

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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