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.
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Because the FEMA director is often a politico, Fugate, with no college degree and few political connections, made for an unorthodox appointee. He rose to the position by reputation alone: When Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano went looking for nominees, people just kept mentioning his name.Skip to next paragraph
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Fugate served as emergency management director for hurricane-prone Florida before taking the helm of FEMA. His first order of business was to demand that all FEMA employees have their own disaster readiness kits at home, part of his mission to reassess not only the agency’s response capability, but also the survival readiness of Americans.
As part of that strategy, FEMA now urges Americans to have at least seven days of provisions on hand at all times – up from three to five days. Fugate also rewrote the agency’s mission statement to replace “protect the nation from all hazards” with “support our citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together.”
“We tend to look at the public as a liability,” Fugate told the Atlantic Monthly in 2009, but “who is going to be the fastest responder when your house falls on your head? Your neighbor.”
In a way, disaster experts say, he has achieved more by promising less. “Fugate is trying, in essence, to retrain or manage the expectations of the citizenry of this country,” says Chris Emrich, who researches disaster preparedness at the University of South Carolina.
“We’ve become dependent on federal government for any kind of disaster, but ... I think what you’re going to see in Alabama is a transition from this idea of vulnerable populations” to a model of resilience.
To be sure, Fugate’s strength is as a first responder. But the ultimate determination of FEMA’s effectiveness will come in the drawn-out appeals and long-term recovery that stretch far beyond the disaster, says Gavin Smith, a natural hazards expert at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Contributing to FEMA’s Success in the tornado-torn South is that many residents already epitomize the self-reliance Fugate preaches. FEMA outreach workers had to practically drag some people to the recovery centers where they could file paperwork for help. “We’ll set up tents. We’ll hunt,” one Alabamian told reporters.
FEMA quickly set up dozens of recovery centers and paid out $3 million in emergency aid within five days of the tornadoes. Fugate still wasn’t satisfied. For one thing, a delivery of blue roof tarps was behind schedule, as another rain front moved into the area.
Although many people, especially in remote rural areas, still hadn’t seen federal representatives a week after the storms, few voiced the resentment or sense of abandonment that dogged FEMA during the Katrina response.
Experts note that the comparison to 2005 is imperfect. Katrina was far more challenging overall. Many widely perceived failings in the response were not due to FEMA alone, but mismanagement by many government officials.
The agency’s new direction hasn’t been universally lauded. In early May, Gov. Rick Perry (R) criticized FEMA for failing to designate most of Texas a natural disaster, after 9,000 wildfires ravaged his state.
But FEMA’s response to the tornadoes has been well received. “Where the federal response is concerned, there’s little to criticize and much to praise,” opined The Birmingham News editorial board on May 4. “That’s very encouraging, indeed.”