Irene helps FEMA prove itself again

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has improved its operations during recent storms by preparing sooner for oncoming disasters rather than waiting to learn the extent of the damage, a top official said today.

“We put a premium on speed,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said. “We just don’t get time back in the first days and hours of the disaster.”

During a conference call, Fugate said FEMA acted quickly in the wake of Hurricane Irene, which recently hit the East Coast. It was an improvement from its response to past natural disasters. A stain on the agency’s record is its response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Fugate said FEMA began preparing before the storm hit by talking with state officials about what they might need after the storm. Also, the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which became law in 2006, gave FEMA more authority to act early to set up communications centers and put officials in place before an oncoming emergency and before getting a state governor's request for help.

For example, FEMA already had a joint field office in Vermont, which is experiencing extensive flooding as a result of the storm. FEMA officials added staff members to the office ahead of time to prepare for what might happen.

Fugate said FEMA doesn’t take over during a disaster but instead prepares to support the states in the aftermath.

“We have to act quickly and be prepared to support that,” Fugate said.

On Aug. 28, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) praised the agency and said FEMA is much stronger than it was during Hurricane Katrina.

“Administrator Fugate and the rest of his team showed this weekend that we have a new FEMA,” said Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) drafted the post-Katrina reform act.

Governors from both parties also praised FEMA.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey commended FEMA’s cooperation with his state in an interview on ABC’s “This Week” that aired Aug. 28.

“We have FEMA representatives here at the Regional Operations and Intelligence Center [who have] been working with us,” Christie said, according to an article in the Huffington Post. “I’m going to be calling [Homeland Security] Secretary [Janet] Napolitano in an hour or two to make a further request of additional needs. But so far, FEMA has been very responsive.”

On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, compared the new FEMA to the agency in the pre-Katrina days.

“Craig Fugate and the people at FEMA, Secretary Napolitano and President Obama — they have been excellent,” said O’Malley, according to the Huffington Post report. “They have been with us since Day One. And actually, before the storm arrived, they were here, and it’s worked really, really well. This is a much better FEMA than the olden days.”

Coast Guard Rear Adm. William Lee, leader of the service’s post-Irene response and commander of its Fifth District in Portsmouth, Va., told the Navy Times that the coordinated response to Irene shows that federal authorities have learned the lessons of Hurricane Katrina.

The George W. Bush administration and FEMA were criticized for miscommunication and delayed response to Katrina, while the Coast Guard was one of the few agencies considered to have acted effectively during the crisis.

“The primary lesson the federal government took away from Katrina is that we needed to do a better job of preplanning and coordination across the interagency,” Lee said. For Irene, the Coast Guard and Homeland Security and Defense departments were making sure people had the necessary equipment in place before the hurricane arrived.

During today’s conference call, Fugate said he won’t know how much Hurricane Irene will cost until the states finish notifying FEMA about their needs and damages.

In related news, FEMA released its first disaster preparedness application for Android phones just before the hurricane struck. Many people reported that they downloaded the application in the first several days. However, the debut might have been marred by a rogue Android application purporting to be from FEMA.

Fugate and other FEMA officials sent messages to the public via Facebook and Twitter in advance of the storm and afterward. Hundreds of people responded on FEMA’s Facebook page.

One person commented: “Thanks, FEMA. You are doing a great job!”

About the Authors

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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