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With fast action, FEMA seeks redemption

Aiding survivors of tornadoes is chief’s priority

FEMA chief W. Craig Fugate (left) and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama spoke during a tour of damage in Pratt City Sunday. FEMA chief W. Craig Fugate (left) and Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama spoke during a tour of damage in Pratt City Sunday. (Wynter Byrd/Associated Press)
By Alicia A. Caldwell
Associated Press / May 4, 2011

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — 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 storms that killed 328 people last week, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator W. Craig Fugate urged President Obama to immediately sign an emergency disaster declaration for Alabama.

That early response was starkly different from past catastrophes.

Perhaps the most memorable example occurred in 2005. As damage from Hurricane Katrina and broken levees in New Orleans was coming into full view, the country and the flooded city wondered: Where is the federal government?

When FEMA finally arrived, its response seemed inept, made more painful by President George W. Bush’s back-slapping praise of then-FEMA chief Michael Brown on national television. The BP oil spill last year brought more criticism when Obama didn’t tour the region for days and the economy and environment of the Gulf Coast were threatened. This time, 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 rather than be left explaining why help took so long to arrive at least made 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 said 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 re-counting the number of bodies. Officials weren’t sure when they would have an accurate count, and said they were still searching for some possible victims.

Yesterday, more rain was forecast for several 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 that 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 series 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 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.’’

The reaction on the ground has been 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., as of Sunday afternoon and Marty Fields hadn’t seen anyone from the government stopping by with offers of help, 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 that they had opened 11 disaster recovery centers in Alabama and nearly 18,000 households 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.

Helping ease the pain are people like the volunteers who stopped by to help cut the tree off his roof, Fields said. The insurance man already has contacted him, and utility crews are working as fast as they can, he said.

There was a similar tone from residents in Smithville, Miss., where much of the town was destroyed. As local officials thanked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Fugate, and others for the federal response, chain saws whirred in the background as volunteers and aid workers dotted the area.

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