Faced with predictions of an "above normal" hurricane season, lawmakers, disaster preparedness experts, and residents in hurricane-prone regions are asking the same question: Is FEMA ready?
There will be no definite answer until the next big hurricane hits a metropolitan area. Still, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials and outside experts alike are touting changes in the agency as proof of its progress since hurricanes Katrina and Rita overwhelmed the Gulf Coast in 2005. Among the improvements they cite:
• FEMA has placed a greater priority on preordering and stockpiling more food, water, and generators in vulnerable areas, as well as on developing detailed plans for distribution and other emergency-response efforts.
• More-experienced administrators, including new FEMA director R. David Paulison, are filling top jobs that were either unoccupied prior to Katrina or filled by officials later accused of being unqualified.
• FEMA is seeking to restore a manageable federal-state-local balance in disaster response. It is urging state and local first-responders to be ready to shoulder much of the relief effort – including executing new evacuation plans for residents unable to get themselves out of harm's way.
"The outlook is good," says Stephen Leatherman, director of the International Hurricane Research Center at Florida International University in Miami. FEMA is "more prepared than [it was] before Katrina, for sure."
Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast that as many as five major hurricanes – Category 3 strength or higher – could hit the Atlantic region (including the Gulf Coast) during the 2007 hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30. Similar predictions for last year failed to materialize because of El Niño and other factors, but there is no guarantee that this hurricane season will be as quiet.
Aware of the intense public scrutiny facing the agency, Mr. Paulison has spent the last month reassuring lawmakers and the public that he oversees a "new FEMA," one that is stronger and more nimble.
Feedback has been mixed. When Paulison testified May 15 before the House Committee on Homeland Security, members praised FEMA for its responses to other natural disasters this year, including the snowstorms that struck the Northeast and the tornados that devastated towns in the Midwest.
National Response Plan is late
But members also questioned why FEMA had yet to finish revising its National Response Plan, which the agency acknowledges will miss its June 1 deadline. The plan, which FEMA says will be released by July 1, lays out guidelines for the responsibilities of all actors involved in disaster response and preparedness. Paulison assured lawmakers that the delay would not affect preparedness.
In his testimony, Paulison said one of the agency's top priorities has been to place more emphasis on developing response plans before disaster strikes, turning hurricane preparedness into a year-round, not seasonal, process.
Prior to Katrina, for example, there were only a "handful" of disaster response plans, which outline the responsibilities of agencies at the local, state, and federal levels in specific areas of disaster response, such as debris clearance and food distribution. Last year there were 40, and today there are 180, Paulison told the House committee.
This is precisely the direction FEMA should be headed, says Andy Garrett, director of preparedness planning and response at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University in New York. Preplanning means FEMA's response can be more organized, a necessity during the otherwise chaotic aftermath of a disaster, he says.
FEMA is still far from fixing all the problems exposed by Katrina. Jeff Smith, acting director of the Louisiana homeland security and emergency preparedness office, says FEMA has yet to commit in writing to supply many of the resources – such as food, water, and generators – it provided last year, although he is optimistic that FEMA will follow through on its verbal promises.
Better evacuation planning
FEMA is also placing more pressure on local agencies to prepare evacuation plans, a major weakness exposed by Katrina. In Louisiana's Jefferson Parish and Orleans Parish, which includes New Orleans, there were no evacuation plans for people unable to evacuate themselves, such as the elderly and those without cars, says Jerry Sneed, director of emergency preparedness and homeland security for Orleans Parish.
Mr. Sneed says a new plan is in place, in which city and parish officials will move residents who are unable to evacuate themselves to predetermined locations, from which point FEMA or other federal and state authorities will move them out of danger.
"The federal planning involvement was definitely different last year than in previous years," says David Passey, a spokesman for the FEMA regional office that oversees Louisiana.
In advance of hurricane season, the agency has rushed to fill vacancies in top jobs at more than half of FEMA's 10 regional offices.
Mississippi Emergency Management Agency director Michael Womack warns that new hires can mean less experience at the top. Still, the emphasis on preplanning, he says, has clarified FEMA's role in disaster response, which in turn will make the agency more effective in the future.
"Pre-Katrina, there were a lot of question marks as to what FEMA's role was, and they've tried to fix that.... Overall, I think it's very positive," Mr. Womack says, expressing confidence that his state is ready for the season.