FEMA chief sees progress 5 years after Katrina

WASHINGTON Wed Aug 25, 2010 1:32am EDT

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (L) and FEMA Director Craig Fugate attend a meeting on hurricane preparedness at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington in this May 29, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Jim Young

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (L) and FEMA Director Craig Fugate attend a meeting on hurricane preparedness at Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) headquarters in Washington in this May 29, 2009 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said his department is better able to quickly respond to disasters now, five years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the U.S. Gulf Coast.

FEMA was widely pilloried in the days after the 2005 storm raked New Orleans because the agency was ill-prepared to handle a disaster of that magnitude, including missing thousands of people at the city's convention center who lacked supplies.

While FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said he believes his agency is prepared for whatever comes his way, he urged people to take their own steps to be ready for a disaster in case the government cannot reach them quickly to provide assistance.

"People are always asking is FEMA ready, is FEMA prepared as if, if FEMA were prepared, suddenly magically everything gets better," Fugate said in an interview this week ahead of his trip to the region. "Here's my question, are people prepared?"

"If you're looking for somebody else to take care of you in a disaster, there may not be somebody else fast enough," he said, noting some of the quickest rescues immediately after Katrina were done by neighbors, not the government.

The Bush administration was widely criticized for its slow response to Hurricane Katrina, and the Obama administration seeks to avoid similar missteps when disaster strikes. There were early questions about whether the White House responded fast enough to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

"Until you have the next catastrophic disaster, all you can say is, 'Here's what we've been doing and the proof will be in how we perform,'" said Fugate, who previously ran Florida's emergency management operations for eight years.

"We don't have to wait to determine how bad it is" to respond to a disaster, he said.

He pointed to the tsunami that hit American Samoa last year as an example of how FEMA had changed, sending supplies from Hawaii before damage assessments were received because officials knew assistance would be needed quickly.

Fugate also said that FEMA was making its way through the backlog of approving funding for projects, with $2.5 billion approved since the Obama administration took office in 2009.

"It wasn't that we said yes every time the state brought up an issue, but we didn't walk away from the table until we got an answer," he said. "That started moving a backlog of projects that were sitting on the desk when the (Obama) administration came in."

But according to FEMA some 24 projects throughout the Gulf Coast worth up to $630 million remain unresolved and in arbitration, like for schools and police stations.

Funding for another group of projects was approved on Tuesday, including $11 million for Xavier University for rebuilding its Louisiana campus. But Fugate noted it would take time to restore infrastructure that took decades to build.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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