Gulf governors endorse Obama’s FEMA chief pick

Published 10:31 pm Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Republican governors of Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana’s top emergency official on Wednesday all endorsed the Obama administration’s choice to lead FEMA into the next hurricane season.

Speaking at a tri-state hurricane training conference in Biloxi, the officials praised the appointment of Craig Fugate as FEMA’s director. Fugate, meanwhile, appears on a fast track for Senate confirmation. Fugate drew support from the storm-vulnerable Gulf states because of his hurricane experience while serving as head of emergency management in Florida.

“It’s great to have someone there who understands what we’re going through when we’re in the eye of a hurricane, and he does,” Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said.

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Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour praised Fugate’s assistance during Katrina.

Federal officials have approved a plan that would provide $120 million over four years to help protect and restore Mississippi’s hurricane-damaged coastline and barrier islands.

“We don’t have levees. Barrier island are our speed bumps,” said Barbour, who called on the Army Corps of Engineers to implement its plan to restore the island to their 1920s elevations. “Time is coming for Congress to fund it.”

Mark Cooper, director of Louisiana Homeland Security, agreed with Barbour that federal officials should allow more flexibility in spending of hazard mitigation funds. Cooper said his state would use the money to build multipurpose shelters; Barbour would spend some of it on communications equipment.

“The first problem you’ve got is how to communicate when everything has been devastated,” Barbour said. “The federal government won’t let us spend it on the thing that would do the most good.”

Cooper also urged FEMA to be more “flexible” in use of the mitigation funds.

“Our issue is sheltering. We’d like to look at mitigation funds to build shelter capacity,” he said.

According to FEMA, the hazard mitigation grants must go for projects that will reduce or eliminate the losses from future disasters, such as elevation of a home to reduce the risk of flood damages, for example.

Officials at the three-day Biloxi conference compared lessons learned from four hurricanes: Katrina and Rita in 2005 and Gustav and Ike in 2008. Hurricane season starts June 1 and ends Nov. 30.

Some 10,000 Louisiana evacuees from Gustav were sheltered in Alabama.

Riley said the government’s high cost of evacuation could be reduced by building more shelters closer to where evacuees live, because some will find their homes undamaged by a hurricane and could return to them sooner.

He warned coastal residents against complacency when a storm approaches and prepare to evacuate.

“Every individual family needs a plan,” Riley said.

During Gustav, Alabama sheltered Louisiana evacuees at its two-year college campuses and a city auditorium in Birmingham and still hasn’t been fully reimbursed by FEMA for those costs, a state official said.

As for the evacuation, Cooper said reversing lanes on interstates to move traffic away from the coast was successful overall during Gustav with some backups in Alabama, apparently blamed on highway construction.

Cooper said his agency will distribute updated maps in the next few weeks to make people aware of the evacuation routes.