Officials credit FEMA progress, teamwork for minimizing disaster

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano speaks about the impact of Hurricane Irene at FEMA Headquarters in Washington, Sunday, Aug., 28, 2011. Napolitano said President Obama instructed administration officials to continue to be aggressive in their efforts to deal with the storm and its aftermath. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano speaks about the impact of Hurricane Irene at FEMA Headquarters in Washington, Sunday, Aug., 28, 2011. Napolitano said President Obama instructed administration officials to continue to be aggressive in their efforts to deal with the storm and its aftermath. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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President Obama, federal officials and East Coast governors and mayors began assessing damage Sunday from Hurricane Irene, which came ashore over the weekend with less-than-anticipated destruction but left behind widespread power outages and at least 21 people dead.

Officials attributed the lack of damage and relatively low loss of life to teamwork between local governments and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

No longer a political punching bag, FEMA earned bipartisan praise from governors who said the coordination between federal and local officials helped mitigate the effects of the storm.

Mr. Obama cut short his Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., vacation and returned to Washington to take charge of the storm response efforts. President George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was widely criticized as ineffectual.

“This is not over. Response and recovery efforts will be an ongoing operation. If [state and local leaders] need something, I want to know about it,” Mr. Obama said Sunday afternoon during a speech in the White House Rose Garden.

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The threat of flooding, Mr. Obama said, remains the top concern as rivers from North Carolina to New England could spill over their banks in the coming days. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that FEMA has water rescue teams in position and ready to help in states along the Eastern Seaboard.

Such preparation barely resembles the situation six years ago, when Katrina devastated New Orleans, Mississippi and other areas, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said.

“They’ve been with us since Day One, and actually before the storm arrived they were here,” the Democrat said about FEMA during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“It’s worked really, really well. This is a much better FEMA than the olden days.”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said Irene’s financial damage to his state could reach “the billions of dollars, if not in the tens of billion of dollars,” but added that help from the federal government made a big difference.

FEMA has been very responsive,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“Right now the cooperation between New Jersey and FEMA has been great, and I’m going to be calling [Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano] shortly to ask for some more help.”

Mr. Fugate, who made appearances on several of the Sunday talk shows, said his agency has sought to erase distinctions among federal, state and local responders.

“We really try to take away from this idea that we’re dealing with local government, then we’re dealing with state government, and then we’re dealing with federal government. We try to work as a team … and also work with the private sector. Those are the big lessons after Katrina that we all have to work as a team,” he said on “Meet the Press.”

Not everyone is on board with the “team” approach to disaster response. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and a FEMA critic, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the agency does little except get in the way of local officials who know best how to protect their residents and communities. FEMA, he said, has “one of the worst reputations of bureaucracy” in Washington.

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