- The Washington Times - Monday, October 24, 2005

FEMA response teams raced across southern Florida yesterday to provide aid to Hurricane Wilma victims — ready for the task despite a record-setting hurricane season.

“Yeah, we’re tired of hurricanes, and yeah, we’re all stressed out a little bit, but we’re prepared to handle this,” said R. David Paulison, acting director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The new administrator replaced Michael Brown just six weeks ago after the Katrina disaster and has led the response to Hurricanes Wilma and Rita, both Category 3 storms, as well as the Katrina recovery effort.

Taking lessons learned from those storms, Mr. Paulison deployed emergency teams and massive amounts of supplies inside and outside of the hurricane strike zone days before Wilma struck Florida.

“The response side of FEMA has gotten a couple weeks of rest, and they’re moving real rapidly. The urban search-and-rescue teams, the medical teams, our teams on the ground, in the field are moving very quickly and are rested and ready to go,” he said at a press conference.

Despite predictions that Wilma would be a Category 1 hurricane, FEMA continued to gear up with supplies and manpower as a precaution.

“These things happen with hurricanes, so we’re glad that we did that,” Mr. Paulison said.

By Friday, the agency had more than 100 trucks full of ice, water and food ready at Homestead Air Force Base just south of Miami and more than 200 truckloads prepositioned at Jacksonville Naval Air Station. Nearly 200 medical personnel and hundreds more search-and-rescue workers were deployed or on standby before the weekend.

Ready-to-eat meals (MREs) are running low, but Mr. Paulison said that Florida has plenty of supplies and that food kitchens could be utilized if necessary.

“We will be there. FEMA will be there in Florida to help the residents and to work with the state, and we’ll stay there as long as it takes to recover from the storm,” he said.

More than 36,000 displaced residents are in shelters, a distressingly low number for officials who say more residents should have evacuated.

“I talked to President Bush this morning. I talked to [Homeland Security] Secretary [Michael] Chertoff, and I just talked to Governor [Jeb] Bush a few hours ago, and they are concerned about people who did not evacuate,” Mr. Paulison said.

Of special concern were reports that many residents had chosen to stay behind in the Keys, “particularly … those who may have stayed in mobile homes,” he said.

The Florida governor credited FEMA with providing “significant additional support,” but he and Mr. Paulison agreed that the state will take the lead in the response and recovery with federal officials playing a secondary role.

“We work through the state; we do not go in and take over. That is not our job. Our job is to make sure that we can assist the state in handling these types of disasters, and that’s what FEMA’s role is,” Mr. Paulison said.

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