Chertoff visits Gulf Coast, says FEMA 'much better'
By Ron Martz
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Copyright 2006 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The dismal response by federal officials to Hurricane Katrina will not be repeated if a major storm hits this hurricane season, the head of the Homeland Security Department said Wednesday in Atlanta.
"Finally, after decades, we've started to build plans," Michael Chertoff said after meeting with Gov. Sonny Perdue and other state officials on hurricane preparations.
Despite Chertoff's promises in Atlanta, earlier in the day he admitted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency still does not have a director for its seven-state Southeastern region — the most hurricane-prone in the nation — and is about 250 workers short, or 10 percent, of being fully staffed.
"We are much better than we were. We're close to 90 percent. We're looking at getting between 90 and 95 percent by the end of the year," Chertoff said at a news conference in Raleigh.
Federal officials in general and FEMA in particular endured blistering criticism in the aftermath of Katrina for their slow and clumsy response to the storm that devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast and caused a flood that crippled New Orleans.
Chertoff's Georgia visit was one of a series of meetings with officials in hurricane-prone states to assess preparedness and to ensure that everyone responsible for dealing with the storms knows each other.
"We don't want to be introducing ourselves when the winds are blowing 75 mph," Perdue said.
Chertoff said federal officials have made significant strides in beefing up its response capabilities the past six or seven months.
But, he added, "We're not totally there yet."
In addition to the meetings and numerous hurricane exercises throughout the Southeast, Chertoff said federal officials have taken other steps to ensure that the Katrina response is not repeated.
They include moving water, food and other needed commodities into areas likely to be hit so they are available more quickly.
Last year, FEMA officials could not track its supply-laden trucks, Chertoff said. This year, all trucks will be equipped with global positioning systems.
In addition, cities in hurricane zones are being encouraged to come up with better evacuation plans than New Orleans had last year. That would include those evacuees who are able to provide their own transportation, those who are physically fit but need transportation, and those who are, in Chertoff's words, "medically compromised" and will either need assistance or a place to ride out the storm.
Georgia provided National Guard troops to assist in Louisiana and Mississippi last year in addition to taking in thousands of Katrina victims.