- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is on a mission destined for disaster. Planning, that is.

Acting Director R. David Paulison admits that the agency he inherited after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was not up to the task of handling the fallout of those storms, let alone an earthquake or terrorist attack.

“It overwhelmed everyone — the system was not set up to deal with a catastrophe of that size,” Mr. Paulison told The Washington Times.

Created 27 years ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, was revered for its heroic response to natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, tornados or hurricanes.

But in the days after Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans, FEMA became a four-letter word for the victims and critics in Congress, leading to the sudden dismissal of its embattled director, Michael D. Brown.

The maligned agency is now planning for the hurricane season that officially begins June 1 as it continues to aid 800,000 families affected by last year’s storms that damaged 90,000 square miles.

“This was the largest migration in the history of the United States — larger than the Civil War, larger than the [Depression-era] Dust Bowl. Normally, we house [3,000 to 5,000] disaster victims a year. We went way beyond that, and we had to make up the rules as we went along,” Mr. Paulison said.

“The major lesson we learned is that FEMA was not ready to handle a catastrophe the size of Katrina, and we now know we have to be ready to respond to a major catastrophe such as an earthquake or terrorist attack, to evacuate hundreds of thousands or millions of people and be able to feed them, house them, and take care of them. We’re putting a system in place to do just that,” he said.

Mr. Paulison saw many of the same shortfalls on the national level that he dealt with when 30,000 homes were destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which struck Florida just two weeks after he was promoted to fire chief of Miami-Dade County.

FEMA now is hiring 1,500 employees for the ongoing disaster recovery and more first responders and has spent $40 billion so far.

His position as acting director allows him to focus on mammoth preparation plans rather than a potential political battle on Capitol Hill to be formally confirmed as FEMA chief.

When asked whether he wants the job permanently, Mr. Paulison said, “I agreed to take the job after Mike Brown left and agreed to help us get through the next hurricane season, and right now, I just want to get FEMA back on track. I serve at the pleasure of the president.”

Mr. Paulison was chief of the U.S. Fire Administration when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff recommended him for the job.

His first order of business in September was to get victims off cots and out of the Louisiana Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center. Once 85,000 evacuees were settled into hotel rooms in every state, including Hawaii and Alaska, many did not want to leave, and attempts since December to move evacuees into short-term housing brought more negative publicity.

“It’s nice for a couple of weeks, but they’ve been there six months now, and a hotel room is no place to raise a family,” Mr. Paulison said.

With only a few hundred evacuees still in hotels — most of whom are handicapped, disabled or too destitute to move on — there is no deadline, and evacuees are being handled on a case-by-case basis.

“These people lost everything — their home, their job, everything they owned, including their neighborhoods. We wanted to be sensitive to their needs and make concessions,” Mr. Paulison said.

The agency faces many challenges, not only in housing, but also in communication, logistics, tracking supplies and learning about problems on the ground.

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