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After this flood, FEMA earns praise

Federal, state, and local agencies responded quickly, say many Midwest residents.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 2008

Aftermath: A FEMA inspector measured the flood height in a home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Seth Wenig/AP

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Wapello, Iowa

When the prospect of major flooding in Iowa loomed more than three weeks ago, the state's emergency management office got busy.

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Local officials were alerted, sandbags were sent out, and the office's new software kept track of emergency missions and allowed local groups to check on how quickly their requests for sandbags or water were being fulfilled.

The impact of the floods – in terms of homes and businesses destroyed, crops ruined, and property lost – has been severe. But the perception of how well the federal, state, and local emergency responders performed, from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on down, contrasts sharply with the criticism such entities received after hurricane Katrina, the 1993 floods, and other recent disasters.

"It's been mostly positive," says Dan Wilson, mayor of Columbus Junction, Iowa, which experienced substantial flooding when a levee overflowed. "Everything we did in preparation ... from preparedness to recovery, I thought we had a lot of help along the way."

Such positive reviews are a welcome change for government agencies, and particularly for FEMA, which had been widely derided after its Katrina response.

"FEMA learned a lot of lessons from its performance during Katrina and Rita," says Harvey Johnson, deputy administrator for FEMA. In particular, he cites the agency's quick deployment of supplies – water, packaged meals, generators, cots – to states even before the flooding occurred or disaster declarations were issued.

"We're trying to look ahead and anticipate, rather than wait until the event occurs and clang the bell, and respond late," says Mr. Johnson.

There's been a much greater effort to coordinate with state and local governments, he adds, and ensure that FEMA's response is appropriate. When Cedar Rapids recently requested several hundred mobile homes, FEMA first checked in with the state government. It also listened to the city's request to lease areas in existing mobile-home parks, rather than setting up the sort of group sites that were so criticized after Katrina.

The agency also pushed to get the necessary disaster declarations out faster and to conduct housing inspections and issue federal payments more quickly.

Long-term recovery – involving more regulations and red tape – can be slower and more frustrating, Johnson acknowledges. But there's a huge effort being made to do things differently, he says. "We have a sense of needing to improve ourselves, and to show people that the new FEMA is more than just a bumper sticker," he says.

High marks for local agencies

While FEMA is getting much of the scrutiny, many of the most important initial responders were state and local groups. And for the most part, they've also received high marks for quick, clear communication with residents, and for efforts that in some cases allowed key public works to be saved or gave people time to remove their possessions.

"I don't think they could have done a better job," says Joleen Gerst, whose farm in Oakville, Iowa, flooded when the levee there was overtopped. In the days leading up to the flood, she received daily "code red" calls updating her on the situation, she says. Volunteers from all over the country helped her and other Oakville residents evacuate, and over 1,000 sandbaggers were used to shore up the levee.

Since the flood, she says she and her husband have already received assistance from FEMA and were told they could apply for temporary housing and even have it located at their farm if they liked.