It’s an unhappy anniversary as Tropical Storm Isaac appears to be following the path of Hurricane Katrina, threatening to hit Louisiana seven years after the 2005 devastation that killed nearly 2,000 people and caused tens of billions of dollars of damage.
The timing—a late-August reprise, this one during the GOP convention—focuses all eyes once again on the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But this time, the much-maligned agency that helped bungle the Bush administration’s initial response to Katrina looks different. FEMA, by many accounts, has better capabilities in place to deal with Katrina-like disasters.
“The biggest lesson we’ve learned is, we have to work together as a team at the state and local and federal levels,” FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said on Monday. “We’re learned … not to wait until it gets bad enough to start talking to each other.” The agency has deployed teams to Florida and Louisiana ahead of Isaac to support state and local preparations, and it has practiced with its partners to prepare for hurricane contingencies.
Communication, which was a problem during Katrina, has improved, said Claire Rubin, an Arlington, Va.-based independent consultant on emergency management. In 2005, Max Mayfield, the then-director of the National Hurricane Center, took the unusual step of calling the New Orleans mayor to alert him of Katrina’s severity. This time around, with the storm possibly ramping up to become a Category 1 or 2 hurricane, the Louisiana state website and local newspapers are “all cranked up with all kinds of advice about evacuation,” Rubin said. “They are definitely proactive, alert.”
On the local level, federal money has gone to improving levees and emergency-management systems. FEMA’s structure, too, has been streamlined and consolidated. The agency has roughly six times more money to help with home repairs, the process of reimbursements for removing debris is quicker, and red tape is greatly relaxed, according to a former FEMA staffer who now works for the legislative branch and is not authorized to speak on the record. FEMA has improved its case-management systems to help people learn what assistance is available as well.
Trust between the experienced emergency managers at FEMA and its parent, the Homeland Security Department, has also gotten better. The agency had only relatively recently been absorbed into the new Cabinet department when Katrina hit. “You didn’t have trust between the levels of DHS. There were a lot of different people contacting state and local governments,” the former staffer said.
Fugate came to FEMA in 2009 with years of experience, having served as director of Florida’s Emergency Management Division since 2001. An experienced team backs him up. During President George W. Bush’s administration, five of eight top FEMA officials had no experience in disaster relief.
Matt Mayer, a former senior DHS official, said that FEMA’s coordination with the Pentagon has been streamlined since 2005 as well. “We had never had anything like Katrina, when you needed a surge in,” Mayer said, recalling a half-day spent back then with senior Defense officials trying to ascertain “first, what they had, and how do we get that mobilized.”
Last year was a record-breaker for weather disasters, which continue to sap FEMA’s disaster-relief funds. Last year, Congress budgeted just $35 million for programs to prepare communities for catastrophic weather—and President Obama zeroed out the program this year.
This article appears in the August 28, 2012, edition of NJ Convention Daily.