THE scope and ferocity of hurricane Hugo is now forcing the United States to consider whether the federal government is ready to deal with natural disasters of exceptional force. Both Congress and officials of the federal disaster agency are beginning to contemplate what changes ought to be made in the federal effort. It is more than a theoretical issue. Some climatologists think changes in international weather patterns mean the US is likely to face a number of hurricanes of Hugo's 135-mile-an-hour strength over the next few years. In addition, earthquake experts continue to warn that the US should be prepared to deal with a major quake in the next few years.
At least one congressional hearing into the ramifications of Hugo is likely, although not yet scheduled. Furthermore, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina, the sharpest critic of the federal response to Hugo, has asked the Government Accounting Office to investigate the federal government's role in handling the disaster.
In recent days in Charleston and nearby areas, the post-storm emphasis has begun to shift from immediate cleanup to long-term rebuilding. Yet huge mounds of debris remain to be hauled away, and electric service has yet to be restored in many rural areas - mute testimony to the size of the the storm.
``Hugo was bigger than anything FEMA has had to respond to in the past,'' says Donald Peterson, who heads the disaster relief effort of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the government agency in charge of relief. If the storm had swung northward up the Atlantic coast after hitting Charleston, as meteorologists had forecast, and had hit additional states, ``we'd be in deep trouble,'' Mr. Peterson acknowledges. ``I think we're strained to the limit'' right now in FEMA's ability to respond to the needs of storm-damaged areas, he says.
One issue likely to come up in any congressional hearing is whether FEMA ought to remain as the third line of defense against major disaster. Under existing law, private agencies like the Red Cross and state governments are supposed to be the first and second line of defense.
Senator Hollings says that approach is inadequate in the event of a large storm like Hugo; ideally, he would like FEMA to take initial responsibility.
FEMA officials say that is unrealistic. They add that several days are required to find quarters for a major FEMA office in a disaster area, to transfer FEMA officials from other offices, and to hire local residents to install miles of telephone and electrical cords needed to get into full operation.
``It's like setting up a large company in a few days,'' says one new FEMA employee in Charleston, with a sweep of her arm around the warehouse-like structure in which busy FEMA employees are working.
If it is unrealistic to expect FEMA to operate at full speed from the first day, Hollings says, he then would have the military take over the entire job of reopening roads and providing food and shelter for the homeless.
Hollings has insisted that the pace of clearing roads and re-stringing electric lines in South Carolina has been too slow, and that the military would have both the existing command structure and the manpower required to do these jobs.
Peterson would not put the military in charge. He believes that it would be sufficient to increase the number of heavy-duty vehicles FEMA could use from the start to reopen roads and restore electricity and other utilities. Peterson also points out that an estimated 1,000 electric company crews from other states already are in Charleston helping local crews to restore electricity.
Peterson strongly defends the performance of his agency but says it is learning ``every minute'' from its sometimes criticized efforts at providing post-Hugo relief.
Already he has several ideas on how FEMA might do a better job in the future. He advocates strengthening and improving the FEMA procedure, rather than radically altering it or replacing the agency.
``Maybe we could have done more pre-positioning'' of relief workers and equipment before the storm actually hit Charleston, Peterson suggested last week in a meeting with reporters. ``We're going to look at that,'' he adds.
That is one point on which agreement exists between Peterson and Hollings, who otherwise have often been at swords points since Hugo hit. In often colorful language Hollings has criticized FEMA for not having moved more quickly to mobilize a broader response effort.
If congressional hearings are held Peterson says he will seek ``additional resources'' from Capitol Hill in order to obtain more heavy-duty vehicles that will enable the government to act more swiftly to reopen roads clogged with downed trees, and to help restore electricity and water.
Clearly the government moved huge amounts of trees to reopen roads in Charleston, its suburbs, and countryside. The huge piles of tree trunks, limbs, and other debris that last week still lined roads was evidence of the immensity of the task.
On Monday, federal officials in Charleston reported with pride that by the next night they expected that primary and secondary roads would be cleared of obstructions and reopened in 22 of the 24 South Carolina counties designated federal disaster areas. It represented prodigious progress; at the same time, it meant that 12 days after the storm some roads remained blocked in two rural counties.