FEMA official: Agency is much different today

Published 12:19 am Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Federal Emergency Management Agency responding to disasters such as the Midwest floods and the California wildfires isn’t the same agency that responded to Hurricane Katrina, a top official told a U.S. Senate panel Thursday.

Harvey Johnson, FEMA’s deputy administrator, told a hearing convened in Washington, D.C., to assess the agency’s post-Katrina performance that “significant progress” has been made in the nearly three years since Katrina and the catastrophic levee breaches left 80 percent of New Orleans under water. He credited R. David Paulison, confirmed as FEMA’s director in 2006, with pushing for the kinds of changes that he said have already made it a vastly different agency.

He noted several such changes: building partnerships between federal, state and local agencies; putting a greater emphasis on preparedness; and working to provide more prompt assistance.

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Bureaucratic frustrations, particularly in seeking to free rebuilding dollars for hurricane-damaged infrastructure, was a leading, long-standing complaint among state and local officials after hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged parts of the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Emergency management officials from four states affected in recent months by such disasters as fire, floods and tornadoes had generally positive things to say about FEMA’s response to their situations. U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., noted that disasters since Katrina have varied in scope. Vast swaths of some New Orleans’ neighborhoods are still devastated, dotted with decrepit vacant homes, overgrown lots and severely warped streets.

Stephen Sellers, a deputy director in the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said he believes the federal government must look at “reasonable” housing options, particularly for cases such as major earthquakes in which substantial amounts of housing stock would be lost.

Johnson said FEMA is working on a national disaster housing plan. The agency came under fire earlier this year after tests showed high levels of formaldehyde fumes in travel trailers and mobile homes used to house victims of the 2005 hurricanes. Formaldehyde is a preservative commonly used in building materials. Prolonged exposure can lead to breathing problems and is also believed to cause cancer.

He also acknowledged other outstanding issues that the agency is dealing with, such as building up and better training its work force.

Paul Rainwater, the executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said the state has had a sometimes tense relationship with FEMA. However, he also said that in spite of that, the state considers FEMA a partner that is being “as flexible as they can” within the constraints of federal law governing disaster recovery.