FEMA seeks to redeem reputation

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — The messages came in a fast and furious onslaught: a series of massively powerful tornadoes were ripping across Alabama and other parts of the South.

On the receiving end of frantic descriptions of entire neighborhoods wiped out by last week’s pulverizing storms that killed 328, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate urged President Barack Obama to immediately sign an emergency disaster declaration for Alabama.

The near immediate response was starkly different from past catastrophes.

Likely the most memorable, in 2005, as the damage from Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans’ broken levees was coming into full view, the country and the flooded city wondered out loud: Where is the federal government?

When FEMA finally arrived, its response seemed inept, made more painful by President George W. Bush’s backslapping praise of then-FEMA chief Michael Brown on national television. Last year’s oil spill brought more criticism when Obama didn’t tour the region for days and the economy and environment of the Gulf Coast was threatened. Fugate arrived in the region the day after the storms subsided, and Obama joined him on Friday.

Katrina’s aftermath prompted federal law changes that allow FEMA to jump in faster with people and supplies.

It looks like Fugate’s decision to risk being criticized for sending too much too soon to flattened towns than be left explaining why help took so long to arrive worked to at least make victims feel as if the government cared.

“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 flew from Alabama, where at least 236 people died — to tour the devastated town of Smithville, Miss.

Alabama officials lowered the state’s death toll and were recounting the number of bodies, a grim task considering some of them were not whole. Officials weren’t sure when they would have an accurate count, and said they were still searching for some possible victims.

On Tuesday, more rain was forecast for several of the tornado-damaged states— Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia — though this round was expected to be more of a nuisance to survivors and volunteers than anything severe.

Fugate said there was plenty more work to do and the cleanup and recovery would be another long-term project.

And though he has been quick to remind anyone who will listen that the states are in charge of responding to the storms, Fugate’s office has also been making sure everyone knows what his agency is up to with a flurry of press releases outlining each step.

Questions about the public relations of disaster response are of little concern to Fugate, who was Florida’s emergency management director during a quadruplet of hurricanes that pummeled the state in 2004 and then jumped to the aid of neighboring Gulf Coast states in Katrina’s aftermath.

“I don’t care,” Fugate says flatly of his public image. “I’m not worried about my reputation; I’m not worried about my press clippings. I’m worried about the survivors.”

Nevertheless, the reaction on the ground has been overwhelmingly positive, even if some folks aren’t entirely sure who is in charge yet.

FEMA hadn’t yet opened a disaster relief office in Tuscaloosa, Ala., by Sunday afternoon and Marty Fields hadn’t seen anyone from the government stopping by with offers of assistance, despite the massive tree that fell into his wood-frame home and opened a gash in the roof. Still, he wasn’t complaining.

“I don’t have any complaints,” Fields said. “If they were just dealing with this one area I may not be too happy. But it’s such a wide area.”

By Monday afternoon, FEMA officials reported they opened 11 disaster recovery centers in Alabama and nearly 18,000 households in the state had already registered for FEMA assistance. The agency also said more than $2 million had been approved so far for temporary housing and home repairs late Monday and more than $1.1 million via a joint state-federal program for disaster-related needs. It said some 1,500 households in Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee had registered for FEMA assistance and officials were rushing to dole it out.

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