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Hurricane Irene Poses Test to Retooled U.S. Emergency Agency

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, credited by local authorities for its response to tornadoes earlier this year, faces another and grander test as Hurricane Irene advances.

Even as the reorganized agency stages for Irene’s onslaught along the East Coast of the United States, stationing hurricane supplies in North Carolina, New Jersey and Massachusetts, another federal agency that tracks severe weather is facing budget cuts to a system that aids in predictions and advisories about tornadoes and hurricanes.

The administrator of FEMA, Craig Fugate, has stressed local preparedness and evacuation orders by state and local officials. Local authorities were faulted for evacuations in advance of Hurricane Katrina during the Bush administration, with FEMA then run by Michael D. Brown.

Fugate’s FEMA is “very much leaning forward and getting their teams prepositioned at the state level to provide assistance quickly,” said Mark Merritt, who was deputy chief of staff at FEMA during the Clinton administration with director James Lee Witt and is president of Witt Associates in Washington.

“People need to be ready to evacuate so it’s less of a strain on the system and there are fewer people to take care of,” Merritt said in an interview, crediting Fugate for “focusing way in advance in telling people to get ready.”

FEMA, reshaped after criticism for its response to Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast in 2005, was praised by local authorities for tornado response this year.

Former Paramedic

Fugate is a one-time paramedic from Gainesville, Florida, who ran that state’s emergency management division before moving to Washington. He deployed more than 1,000 workers to Alabama, where more than 50 tornadoes struck in April. Fugate’s agency was credited for its response to a tornado that killed at least 125 people in Joplin, Missouri, on May 22.

“They have been nothing but great,” said John Bartosh, presiding commissioner in Jasper County, Missouri, at the time.

Preparing for Irene, a Category 2 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 110 mph, FEMA already has sent to North Carolina such supplies as food, bottled water, medical equipment, tarps and generators, Fugate said said on a conference call yesterday with reporters. FEMA has dispatched teams “all the way up the East Coast, including Maine,” and is coordinating with local officials, he said.

Fugate urged residents along the East Coast to follow any evacuation orders related to Irene.

‘Delay Can Be Deadly’

“Delay can be deadly, and you’ll run out of time and lose options,” he said.

Effects of the storm may spread as far inland as Baltimore and Washington, officials said. There may be five to 10 inches of rain in the mid-Atlantic and New England, U.S. National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read said on yesterday’s call.

“Regardless of the fine details or where the center goes, it’s going to bring into play all of the northeast corridor for heavy rains, high winds, and coastal storm flooding,” Fugate said.

Irene is forecast to grow larger as it moves toward North Carolina’s Outer Banks this weekend. It could hit the Northeast as early as Aug. 28, according to the National Hurricane Center track projection.

FEMA is stocking emergency supplies in Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Westover Air Reserve Base in Massachusetts; and McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

Atlanta Preparations

The agency maintains commodities, including millions of liters of water, millions of meals and hundreds of thousands of blankets, at distribution centers. In Atlanta, the agency counts more than 2 million liters of water, more than 1.3 million meals and more than 16,000 cots and 56,000 blankets.

Still, a budget gap may soon leave a hole in the U.S. weather-data system used to make predictions in severe storms. The $12 billion Joint Polar Satellite System originally planned to launch a replacement orbiter in 2014. The craft won’t get into space until 2017 or later as a result of a funding cut in the federal fiscal year 2011 budget.

“A loss of polar-orbiting satellite observations will result in some degradation in hurricane track and intensity forecasts in the important three-to-five day coastal evacuation planning period,” John Leslie, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in an e-mail.

FEMA also was preparing the nation’s capital for severe weather. The dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington on Aug. 28, at which President Barack Obama plans to speak, was postponed indefinitely due to the approaching storm.

To contact the reporter on this story: Catherine Dodge in Washington at cdodge1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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