FEMA Gets Its Groove Back

A year after Hurricane Katrina leveled New Orleans and revealed the Federal Emergency Management Agency's ineptitude, state and local public officials in the region had so little faith in FEMA that they made their own arrangements to get ice, food, and generators for the next disaster. Now, as the sixth anniversary of Katrina approaches, communities coping with killer tornadoes and flooding this spring are surprised by an agency that has been revamped.

The FEMA team that arrived in Joplin, Mo., on May 22 after a tornado ripped through the city, killing at least 125 people, quickly coordinated with volunteers and helped with search-and-rescue efforts, says John Bartosh, presiding commissioner in Jasper County. "They have been nothing but great."

FEMA has deployed more than 1,000 employees in Alabama, where more than 50 tornadoes swept through the state's northern half on Apr. 27, leaving 238 dead and flattening thousands of homes and businesses. Its crew there and the Small Business Administration have already approved more than $54.7 million in disaster assistance for the state's residents, according to FEMA spokesman Mike Stone. "I've been very impressed with the dedicated professionals FEMA has put on the ground here in Tuscaloosa," says Tuscaloosa Mayor Walter Maddox. FEMA staffers are also on the ground in Oklahoma and Arkansas to help in the aftermath of tornadoes in those states.

Congress has taken notice of FEMA's improved performance. "We are better prepared for disasters of all kinds than we have ever been," said Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, in an e-mailed statement.

Lawmakers and emergency-management experts credit the turnaround to government reports that laid bare FEMA's flaws, a 2006 law that restructured the agency and, most recently, the arrival of FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate. Before the Senate confirmed him in 2009, Fugate had directed Florida's Emergency Management Div. since 2001. The 52-year-old Florida native got his start as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic in his hometown of Gainesville.

That accumulated experience stands in marked contrast to the background of Michael Brown, a former official at the International Arabian Horse Assn. who headed FEMA in Katrina's aftermath. "When you put a professional emergency manager" in the top FEMA spot, "it's a quantum level of performance than when you have a political" appointment, says James Carafano, a director at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Fugate has what he describes as a "Waffle House" theory of emergency management to assess how bad a situation is after a disaster. "If the Waffle House is open and serving food and has got a full menu, then it's green," he said during an interview inside a FEMA mobile home parked outside a fire station in Joplin. "If the Waffle House is open but has a limited menu, it's yellow, and if the Waffle House isn't open, that's red." (Joplin's local Waffle House survived.)

Fugate has recruited former state directors at the agency, who deal directly with their regional counterparts, says Barry W. Scanlon, a former FEMA official who's president of Witt Associates, a Washington-based disaster-management consultant. Because of their past experience, the FEMA managers are sympathetic to the state officials and don't take a "top-down, 'this-is-the-way-it's-got-to-be' approach," he says.

Prior to Katrina, as mandated by law, FEMA would wait to receive a governor's formal request for help before swinging into action. Under Fugate and his predecessor, David Paulison, FEMA staffers now show up ahead of any formal request for help. Fugate also works closely with local companies affected by disasters.

Much of the groundwork for the improvements was laid before Fugate got to the agency, according to disaster-management experts. The 2006 law rejiggered the agency's organization chart so that the administrator had more support. Fugate says there is more to do: There is too much focus on temporary shelters and not enough on building more permanent housing in disaster zones.

The next test is whether FEMA can buttress the long-term rebuilding efforts of storm-wracked communities. The question to ask, according to Scanlon, is, "What does Joplin look like a year from now?"

The bottom line: FEMA has rebuilt its credibility under W. Craig Fugate and responded to this spring's tornadoes by arriving before states request aid.

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