- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2009

GULFPORT, Miss.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said the nation’s disaster-response teams and federal agencies learned valuable lessons from mistakes made during Hurricane Katrina, adding that her department may use text messages and Twitter to help with preparedness.

Ms. Napolitano told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview Friday that disaster-readiness is a “never-ending process” because each one brings a unique set of challenges.

“Every forest fire I had in Arizona during my time as governor, I learned from,” Ms. Napolitano said a few minutes after a helicopter tour of the region alongside Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

Three months before the start of hurricane season, The Times asked Ms. Napolitano during her tour of recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast whether the nation is prepared for another large-scale disaster.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had a lot of experience with these over the past years, so there has been a lot of education and a lot of preparation, but that’s a never-ending process,” she said. “Even in the best-managed circumstances you’re going to have something happen that you are just going to have to move with, cope with, figure out an answer for.”

Ms. Napolitano cited the recent massive ice storm in Kentucky as an example. Ice had buckled the phone towers, making it tough for state and local officials to communicate their needs to the feds.

“It took a day or so to figure out how to get the information out,” she said. “Overall, I think we are better prepared, say, than we were pre-Katrina, no doubt.”

She said during her confirmation hearings that a top goal is to make sure the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) coordinates better with local officials in the future.

While on the two-day tour, Ms. Napolitano huddled privately with New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and local FEMA workers. Mr. Nagin told The Times the meeting was “very encouraging,” and that he came away feeling Ms. Napolitano understood that the city is struggling with federal bureaucracy.

The Homeland Security chief said she was glad to get face time with local officers to empower them to identify the speed bumps they have long plagued recovery efforts.

“We will help them do their jobs. Some of the logjams have been created not necessarily by the people on the Gulf Coast, but by Washington, D.C.,” she said.

During her tour, Ms. Napolitano announced that she had freed up new recovery funding, but also struck a harsh tone against those “logjams,” and said she has started a senior-level review effort to cut through red tape.

She lauded President Obama’s nominee to lead FEMA, Florida emergency management chief Craig Fugate, as someone who “really knows the hurricane business.”

Asked about FEMA’s work using the social-networking Web site Twitter for hurricane and tornado warnings, and to let people know about deadlines to apply for disaster aid, Ms. Napolitano smiled.

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