This Time, FEMA Vows to Be Ready

With Hurricane Wilma churning toward a possible weekend landfall on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the maligned federal agency charged with the anticipated recovery effort is vowing not to repeat the mistakes of disasters past.

R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Thursday FEMA is prepared to help state and local authorities in Florida despite recent strains placed on the agency by an almost unprecedented series of calamities, including hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

“FEMA will be there to assist throughout the cleanup to recovery of this storm,” he said.

Some aren’t so confidant. Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., who watched his New Orleans-based congressional district wash out to sea as the result of Katrina’s fury, said he hasn’t seen any hint that the problems that plagued FEMA during that too little-too late response have been adequately addressed.

“As Hurricane Wilma quickly approaches American soil, I fear that our federal response to emergencies is still lacking,” Jefferson said, adding that he “could not gather that much has changed about where FEMA stands today as it stood at the time Katrina struck.”

Funding, planning and communications were absent in preparing for Katrina, Jefferson said, and it appears those problems remain. The response, which cost former FEMA director Michael Brown his job, is under review by a special House panel.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who oversees FEMA, acknowledged “there are many things that didn’t work well” with the response to Katrina.

“By all measures, Hurricane Katrina was the largest natural disaster that FEMA has ever been called upon to support,” Chertoff said. “Although FEMA pre-positioned significant numbers of personnel, assets and resources before the hurricane made landfall, we now know its capabilities were simply overwhelmed by the magnitude of this storm.”

Needed changes are under way within the agency, Chertoff said, offering assurances that “We are going to be very prepared for Hurricane Wilma.”

Paulison, speaking with reporters on Thursday, said FEMA’s response to Hurricane Wilma is expected to be narrower than the action the agency ultimately accorded to Katrina and Hurricane Rita. That’s by design _ the state of Florida already is well prepared for the looming catastrophe meaning the federal government’s contribution should be less.

Still, FEMA is in the process of establishing staging areas and dispatching supplies to the Homestead Air Force Base near Miami and the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. Altogether, Paulison said, 150 truckloads of ice, 150 truckloads of water and 30 truckloads of meals ready to eat _ MREs _ are on their way with arrival expected on Friday. Two urban search-and-rescue task force teams are on their way to Orlando along with six disaster medical assistance teams.

Given the political fallout from the Katrina response, the White House, not surprisingly, is keeping close tabs on Wilma. President Bush is particularly interested since his brother, Jeb, is the governor of Florida.

Scott McClellan, the president’s press secretary, said the administration is “actively taking steps to prepare for Hurricane Wilma.” Fran Townsend, the president’s homeland security advisor, is reviewing the dilemmas posed by Katrina to assure the federal government doesn’t make the same mistakes. But McClellan said much of the responsibility falls to the state and local government.

“Typically, when you have a hurricane like this, the state and local authorities are in the lead in terms of the initial response and the federal government’s role is to support those efforts and help with the coordination of those efforts,” McClellan said. “It’s as natural disaster. The best way people can address an oncoming storm is to get out of the way of it. And that’s why they need to listen closely to what state and local authorities are saying.”

McClellan said FEMA is redoubling efforts to “make coordination at all levels of government as seamless as possible.” That will enhance the federal government’s ability to work with state and local governments to target resources where the need is critical.

FEMA, McClellan said, is holding video teleconferences with field offices in the Gulf Coast region to ensure coordination and maintaining contact with the National Hurricane Center, which offers the most up-to-date briefings on Wilma and its movement and path.

The Department of Defense has entered the picture, at FEMA’s request, offering locations in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi that could serve as mobilization centers if events dictate. Search-and-rescue teams will remain on call at installations along the Gulf Coast, and the U.S. Navy has placed three Norfolk-based ships on stand-by to head for South Florida if their services are required.

(Contact Bill Straub at StraubB(at)