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With response to tornadoes, FEMA begins to rebuild its reputation

New FEMA chief retooled the agency after its subpar response to Katrina, and it shows in response to recent tornadoes. He sees FEMA in a supporting, not leading, role.

By Staff writer / May 6, 2011

In this April 28 photo, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and his wife Dianne view tornado damage in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Dave Martin/AP

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Atlanta

The designation of the Alabama tornadoes as a Category 1 disaster – the ranking given to 9/11 and hurricane Katrina – has put FEMA and its new director to the test.

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Since taking the helm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency two years ago, Craig Fugate has begun a dramatic, common-sense revamp of national preparedness. He has led a Twitter-driven campaign to recalibrate American attitudes toward disasters and the role of FEMA amid the rubble.

In keeping with that do-something reputation, Mr. Fugate planned to be on the ground in Alabama Friday, to talk recovery with officials and hear from disaster survivors. Planned stops included an emergency command post in Phil Campbell, a Disaster Recovery Center in Hackelburg, and Bethel Baptist Church in Pleasant Grove.

With an estimated 328 dead and thousands homeless, the April 26-27 tornadoes became the agency’s biggest post-Katrina challenge. Early praise for FEMA’s response from Southern governors suggests that this may mark a turning point for the tarnished agency.

“In a big disaster like this, you usually start hearing complaints from state and local officials within at least 72 hours,” says David Schanzer, a homeland security expert at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “If you’re not hearing [complaints], it’s usually an important sign that things are going pretty well.”

In a marked contrast to the delay after hurricane Katrina, Fugate urged President Obama to declare Alabama a federal disaster area even before the harshest damage reports were in.

With at least 305 tornadoes reported in six states for the two-day period, it is the largest tornado outbreak in US history.

“If you can’t tell me it’s not bad, I’m going to assume it’s bad ... and go,” Fugate told The Associated Press, as he toured the area by air on May 1.
Appearing with Gov. Robert Bentley (R) of Ala-bama the day after the storms, Fugate reiterated that FEMA was taking a support role, then gave the governor the floor.

“It’s not FEMA’s role to step in midstream and take over, but to allow folks to do all they can and to let them know that there’s help if they need it,” says Edwin Bailey, who worked with Fugate in Achuala, Fla., as emergency responders. “Craig gets that.”

After hurricane Katrina, President Bush’s “heckuva job, Brownie,” to then-administrator Michael Brown, a lawyer and political appointee, came to symbolize the chasm between federal leadership and the situation on the ground. Mr. Brown resigned shortly thereafter.

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