WASHINGTON — THIS time, it's the swollen waters of the Mississippi that have overwhelmed local emergency resources and prompted calls for federal help. Now the Federal Emergency Management Agency, armed with an ambitious director and new tactics, is looking at a chance to do things right.
Originally designed to provide emergency services in the case of a nuclear attack, FEMA was ill-equipped to deal with an onslaught of natural disasters that began with Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Criticism of FEMA culminated last year in calls for its abolition after victims of Hurricane Andrew waited four days before receiving federal aid.
Since President Clinton's appointment of James Lee Witt as the new director of FEMA, the organization has been the focus of large-scale reform efforts. Mr. Witt, who is the first agency head with emergency-management experience, pledged to make FEMA "one of the most effective and respected agencies in Washington" by creating an active, rather than reactive, emergency-management system.
In May, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland also introduced a bill calling for a major revamping of FEMA's operating structure. The plan would slash the agency's number of political appointees from 34 to 5 and place the vice president at the head of a new national crisis-monitoring unit.
Now, only three months after taking office, Witt and his organization are up against devastating floods. The upper Mississippi River has crested at its highest level in history and FEMA's commitment to improving its efficiency is being severely tested. So far, the agency is right on target.
"FEMA is coordinating drinking water and is already inventorying damage," said Joe Pender, a spokesman for Rep. Jim Leach (D) of Iowa. "I'm unaware of any complaints, and FEMA seems to be doing what it's supposed to be doing."
Because the first signs of serious flooding came on June 11, federal emergency managers have had adequate time to mobilize relief efforts. But hurricanes hit with little warning and earthquakes with none at all, and FEMA has suffered particular criticism in the past for its failure to respond quickly.
"With Andrew, we couldn't provide the immediate responses we should have been able to, and FEMA didn't come in till four or five days after the storm," said Kathleen Hale, an emergency- management director in Dade County, Fla.
"The response sequence is local, then state, then federal, but if it can't be handled at the local and state levels, FEMA needs to be able to move right in." Under Witt's supervision, the agency has changed its strategies and is offering immediate response services.
FEMA opened disaster-assistance centers this week in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois, and representatives from FEMA offices all over the country have been sent to help out local and state emergency forces.
"We made a mistake with Hurricane Andrew by waiting for the states to tell us what they needed first," said Richard Krimm, associate director of FEMA. "But now, we go to the state and say: `Here are the things you need, just tell us if you want them.' "
As director of Emergency Management Services in Arkansas for five years, Witt has established strong contacts with state emergency managers in the Midwest. He is meeting daily with them to coordinate federal and local efforts, Mr. Krimm said.
Disaster-assistance centers have begun to accept applications for temporary housing from people who have lost their homes, but plans for long-term recovery cannot be fully activated until water levels recede and FEMA can assess the damage.
"It's still early and the water's still way up. But still, we're here and ready to go," said Len DiCarlo, a disaster reservist with FEMA in Philadelphia who is working at an Illinois field office.