FEMA chief touts agency's progress
By F.N. D'Alessio
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press
CHICAGO — The Federal Emergency Management Agency is now prepared to handle a disaster the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina, and those seeking evidence need look no further than catastrophes that hit the nation this year, agency Administrator R. David Paulison said Thursday.
Proof of FEMA's reforms were in its rapid response to a killer tornado in Kansas, its preparedness for Category 5 Hurricane Dean and its efficient processing of disaster declaration requests after torrential rains in Illinois, said Paulison, making his remarks in an interview with The Associated Press as he visited Chicago as part of National Preparedness Month.
"We're trying to deal with 30 years of bureaucracy that's been built up and to streamline all the processes," said Paulison, a former Miami-Dade fire chief named to the FEMA post after his predecessor, Michael Brown, resigned following the agency's bungled response to Katrina two years ago.
While he declined to criticize Brown, Paulison said FEMA badly needed reform from someone "who has experience with dealing with disasters and hands-on knowledge of emergency relief."
Brown was an attorney, held local government posts and was an official with the International Arabian Horse Association before President Bush appointed him to head FEMA in 2003.
"What we've done in the this country in the past is to set up a system of what I call 'sequential failure,'" Paulison said. "We would wait for communities to become overwhelmed before the state would step in, and then the state would become overwhelmed before the federal government would step in. This process does not work; we saw that with Katrina."
The solution is a "system of engaged partnerships" at local, state and federal levels to prepare for catastrophes, Paulison said.
"We are enabling FEMA to step in pre-emptively even before a disaster declaration — or even before the disaster itself," he said.
Paulison cited last month's Hurricane Dean, which at one point could have made landfall in Texas. The huge storm eventually veered south and missed the U.S.
"Through partnership with Texas, we had 3,000 buses, 500 ambulances and 200 helicopters all ready to go prior to the storm making landfall," he said. "I was not going to let another Katrina happen on my shift."
When a tornado wiped out Greensburg, Kan., in May, killing 10 people, FEMA had aid workers in place the same day, Paulison said. He also noted that the agency approved a federal disaster declaration for two Illinois counties less than a month after August flash floods there — more quickly than in previous disasters of similar magnitude.
FEMA has recently faced new criticism for its response to concerns that emergency trailers it provided to Katrina victims may contain high levels of formaldehyde, a carcinogen that can cause respiratory problems.
The agency was slow to react to the concerns and even then downplayed the health risk, but recently said it will move thousands of evacuees out of the trailers and stop using them in the future until FEMA can deliver safe ones.
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