FEMA prepares for Katrina's aftermath
August 29, 2005

      WASHINGTON (AP) — Baby formula from the Agriculture Department, communications equipment and medical teams from the Defense Department and generators, water and ice from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are among the assistance ready for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

      As the Category 4 storm surged ashore just east of New Orleans on Monday, FEMA had medical teams, rescue squads and groups prepared to supply food and water poised in a semicircle around the city, said agency Director Michael Brown.

      While federal, state and local agencies were poised to help, recovery could be a slow process.

      Former Army Corps of Engineers commander Robert B. Flowers said a major hurricane striking near New Orleans is a worst case scenario.

      “I couldn't even begin to estimate the billions of dollars in damage that are going to result. You could have water several feet deep in the city for days before the pumps can discharge it,” said Flowers, now CEO of HNTB Federal Services in Arlington, Va.

      Speaking from Baton Rouge, just upriver from New Orleans, Brown told NBC's “Today” show his agency had “planned for this kind of disaster for many years because we've always known about New Orleans' situation.” Much of the city is below sea level, making it extremely vulnerable to storm flooding.

      The potential damage of such a storm striking New Orleans has long been a worry of federal agencies including the National Weather Service, FEMA and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others.

      “We're still focused on Louisiana right now, but I gotta tell you this afternoon as this thing starts making landfall and makes that turn to the north and northeast, I'm very concerned about Mississippi,” Brown told Fox News Channel. “We're going to have the flooding in New Orleans and then we're going to have the storm as it moves through Mississippi with additional flooding and tornadoes and downed power lines and all of that. This is going to be a big storm in terms of our response, because of the geographical spread of it.”

      In other storm-related moves:

•     The EPA dispatched emergency crews to Louisiana and Texas, because of concern about oil and chemical spills. The agency has set up facilities for checking on the damage, but won't be able to quickly assess the region's needs until it can safely send more people into the field.

      Sam Coleman, a regional director for EPA's Superfund toxic waste division in Dallas, said an employee standing by in Baton Rouge will oversee the agency's after-storm review of petrochemical, wastewater treatment and drinking water plants.

      “Once that rapid assessment is done, then we go into full force,” Coleman told AP. “We don't want to put everybody too close to the storm until we figure out exactly what to do.”

      “We have the equipment standing by, an aspect plane for surveillance that can see petrochemical spills from the air, but it's not cleared to fly in high winds or dangerous weather,” he said.

•     The Coast Guard closed ports and waterways along the Gulf Coast and evacuated its own personnel and equipment.

      More than 40 Coast Guard aircraft from units along the entire Eastern Seaboard, along with more than 30 small boats, patrol boats and cutters, were positioned around the area to be ready to conduct post-hurricane search and rescue operations and to do waterway damage checks and begin any needed repairs.

•     The Agriculture Department said it will provide meals and other commodities, such as infant formula, distilled water for babies and emergency food stamps, through its Food and Nutrition Service.

      Its Natural Resources Conservation Service has an emergency watershed protection program. Its Rural Development office offers housing assistance to keep people from being delinquent on housing payments. The Farm Service Agency has state emergency boards with members who will help assess damage to agriculture and help decide the type and amount of recovery aid available in areas where disasters have been declared.

      Also, the Forest Service, which is part of the department, has an incident command team that will coordinate with FEMA and the Red Cross.

•     The Federal Aviation Administration said airports were closed in New Orleans and Baton Rouge; Biloxi, Miss.; Mobile, Ala.; Pensacola, Fla. and at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. Airlines have moved their equipment away from the stricken areas and canceled all flights, FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said. Many air traffic control facilities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are closed.

•     The Defense Department dispatched emergency coordinators to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi to provide a wide range of assistance including communications equipment, search and rescue operations, medical teams and other emergency supplies.

      Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita said the states have adequate National Guard units to handle the hurricane needs, with at least 60% of the guard available in each state. He said about 6,500 National Guard troops were available in Louisiana, about 7,000 troops in Mississippi, nearly 10,000 in Alabama and about 8,200 in Florida.

      The First U.S. Army, based at Fort Gillem near Atlanta, has 1,600 National Guard troops that were there training to go to Iraq, and they will be available to assist the states or evacuate Camp Shelby in Mississippi, if necessary.

FEMA ready to test recovery procedures
By Larry Wheeler, Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON — The widespread devastation Hurricane Katrina causes to the Gulf Coast will test the Federal Emergency Management Agency's pledge to improve its performance after a mega-disaster strikes.

Stung by criticism of its response to four hurricanes that clobbered Florida last year, FEMA officials have promised to do better this year.

They have adopted changes that could help speed the recovery process for families, businesses and local governments in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi.

"Every disaster is different," said Natalie Rule, a FEMA spokeswoman. "The 2004 hurricane season was extremely helpful in homing in on where we could tighten things up."

A key form of federal help is public assistance grants to state and local governments to offset the cost of debris removal and overtime pay for emergency and law enforcement workers.

Typically, the federal government pays 75% of these costs while state and local governments divide the remainder.

Last year, the federal government agreed to pay 90% of such costs in Florida, saving the state and local governments tens of millions of dollars.

Even so, reimbursements for debris removal and overtime expenses were slow in coming from FEMA.

Elected officials, including members of Congress, lambasted the federal agency for its often contradictory response that left many county governments facing huge bills they thought the federal government would cover.

Federal disaster officials reversed direction and agreed to pay local governments up front for debris removal and public safety costs after Hurricane Dennis ripped into the western Florida Panhandle on July 10.

"That's a huge, big deal difference," said Frank Koutnik, Florida's state disaster recovery chief.

FEMA officials in Washington could not confirm Monday whether that "pay first" policy would be extended to the states hardest hit by Katrina's damaging winds and water.

Major disaster declarations issued by Bush to deal with Katrina's aftermath specifically excluded "debris removal" from a list of emergency measures the federal government would pay entirely if incurred within 72 hours of the storm's passing.

FEMA has also tightened a number of procedures and policies to ensure the correct disbursement of direct federal assistance to individuals.

The federal disaster relief program provides direct cash payments to individuals for such things as rental assistance, replacement of damaged and destroyed personal property, including cars, and even funeral expenses.

An investigation by the Department of Homeland Security's Inspector General's office found weaknesses in FEMA's individual assistance program that led to overpayments for furniture, rent and even funerals for individuals whose deaths were not storm-related.

This year, FEMA inspectors are operating under more conservative rules that require extra documentation and proof of storm damage, need for housing assistance and other forms of aide.

All FEMA inspectors are now equipped with digital cameras to document hurricane damage. The agency also will limit rental assistance to one-month increments with additional payments subject to proof of relocation.

Where FEMA funds come from

FEMA pays local governments and individuals out of the President's Disaster Relief Fund, an account that is replenished annually and sometimes more often by Congressional appropriation.

Last year, Bush made three emergency requests for supplemental funding to respond to the onslaught of hurricanes that hit Florida but also caused damage in other states. Ultimately, Congress approved $8.5 billion in emergency spending.

There is an estimated $2 billion currently in the Disaster Relief Fund but Congress could supplement that again with additional emergency allocations when members return to Washington after Labor Day.