FEMA Prepares For Gustav To Hit Gulf Coast The Federal Emergency Management Agency is focused on dealing with the storm Gustav, which could smash the Gulf Coast as a major hurricane. The head of FEMA is in the region and his boss, Homeland Defense Secretary Michael Chertoff, is going, too.
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FEMA Prepares For Gustav To Hit Gulf Coast

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FEMA Prepares For Gustav To Hit Gulf Coast

FEMA Prepares For Gustav To Hit Gulf Coast

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Tropical Storm Gustav pounded Jamaica today. It could regain hurricane strength, and it's predicted to head toward the Gulf Coast. Communities there are preparing for the possibility of another hurricane three years after Katrina and Rita devastated much of the region.

And as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, emergency response teams are scrambling to avoid a repeat of that disaster.

PAM FESSLER: Several dozen officials gathered this afternoon for a video teleconference at FEMA headquarters in Washington. It's one of many such calls expected in the coming days as Gustav heads toward the Gulf Coast and another tropical storm, Hanna, forms in the Atlantic.

U: Do we have the National Hurricane Center on line?

U: We're on line.

U: National Hurricane Center on line.

FESSLER: Besides numerous federal agencies, several Gulf Coast states were also represented.

U: Do we have Florida on line as well?

U: Florida on line.

U: Georgia?

U: Georgia's on line.

U: Thank you, Georgia. Mississippi?

FESSLER: Calls such as this occurred prior to Hurricane Katrina but with fewer people and not always with the same sense of urgency. FEMA's deputy administrator Harvey Johnson reminded everyone what was at stake.

BLOCK: I think it's very, very important as we look at this storm that's potentially going to be the largest hurricane to come to the United States and land - hit - make landfall since Katrina. Very, very important that we play the way we've practiced and trained over the last year and a half.

FESSLER: And that means coordinating with each other following a chain of command that basically didn't exist three years ago. Johnson noted that states are in charge of hurricane response but that the federal government is there to help with emergency supplies and personnel. Johnson told participants there was something else at stake.

BLOCK: Most important, I think we need to inspire some confidence. I think we need to inspire confidence within FEMA, our own people, we need to inspire confidence in the federal family with our states and local partners, and then most importantly, inspire confidence of the American public.

FESSLER: So to that end, the Bush administration is trying to show it has no intention of repeating its mistakes during Katrina. White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said President Bush is getting regular updates. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff headed to Louisiana to meet with state and local officials about their plans.

BLOCK: I think the response aspect is the difference between night and day.

FESSLER: Mark Merritt was a FEMA official during the Clinton administration. He's now president of James Lee Witt Associates and has been advising the state of Louisiana. He thinks the federal government is much better prepared than it was three years ago.

BLOCK: Where I am concerned is how much has been done from the recovery of Katrina to the infrastructure and to the levees and, you know, to the facilities.

I think that they're desperately behind the timeline where they should be in the repairs that they've done that's going to put the city at risk once the storm hits.

FESSLER: For example, he says, levees aren't as strong as they should be and some homes were rebuilt below the levels that flooded them three years ago. That's not to mention thousands of people in Louisiana still living in travel trailers, which are especially vulnerable.

Federal officials admit there could be problems and say that people need to evacuate if ordered to do so.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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