States report progress at FEMA
Disaster relief remains headache
By Bruce Alpert
WASHINGTON — Rebuilding after 22 tornadoes tore through Kansas in May 2007 was slowed because turnover of Federal Emergency Management Agency officials caused conflicting estimates of how much federal help was available, an official from the state told Congress on Thursday.
That sounded familiar to Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison comments on the federal response and recovery effort in the Southern California wildfires, in Pasadena, Calif., Oct. 31, 2007. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, state and local officials in Louisiana said constant FEMA turnover meant they repeatedly had to go over the same ground with the latest agency official assigned to deal with damage in their jurisdictions.
"This is a problem we've been leaning on FEMA to fix," Landrieu said as she led a hearing Thursday of the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery. The hearing was called to assess the federal government's response to some of the 169 major disasters since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
State officials who testified reported progress, although they said problems with finding sufficient temporary housing have continued.
"At the outset, I would like to state very firmly that the successful response and recovery to the event would not have been possible without the effective cooperation and support of the federal government, especially FEMA," said Stephen Sellers, deputy director of California Governor's Office of Emergency Services, talking about the 2007 wildfires in his state. It's too early, he said, to pass judgment on the current wildfires in California.
James Bassham, director of the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, also praised FEMA for its response to tornadoes that killed 33 people and left thousands homeless in his state on Feb. 5.
But Bassham did complain that finding temporary housing for displaced Tennessee residents was made difficult because of what he described as a "contest of wills" between FEMA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services and Tennessee officials on what levels of formaldehyde are acceptable for emergency travel trailers.
The federal government, he said, needs to establish firm standards for formaldehyde to guide officials in emergency housing for future disasters.
Landrieu, while acknowledging improvement at FEMA, said she remains concerned that the agency still doesn't have a plan to respond effectively to the kind of catastrophic disaster that occurred during Katrina. She said she also wants the agency to consider alternatives to travel trailers for housing displaced residents.
Harvey Johnson, deputy administrator for FEMA, said the agency is making progress, although he conceded it isn't as fast as he and other administrators would like. For the first time, he said, the agency has one coordinated office to oversee the training and hiring of temporary workers who would be called upon in the event of a major disaster like Katrina.