- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 3, 2011

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The messages came in a fast and furious onslaught: a series of massively powerful tornadoes were ripping across Alabama and other parts of the South.

On the receiving end of frantic descriptions of entire neighborhoods wiped out by last week’s pulverizing storms that killed 342, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate urged President Barack Obama to immediately sign an emergency disaster declaration for Alabama.

The near immediate response was starkly different from past catastrophes.

Likely the most memorable, in 2005, as the damage from Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans’ broken levees was coming into full view, the country and the flooded city wondered out loud: Where is the federal government?

When FEMA finally arrived, its response seemed inept, made more painful by President George W. Bush’s backslapping praise of then-FEMA chief Michael Brown on national television. Last year’s oil spill brought more criticism when Obama didn’t tour the region for days and the economy and environment of the Gulf Coast was threatened. Fugate arrived in the region the day after the storms subsided, and Obama joined him on Friday.

Katrina’s aftermath prompted federal law changes that allow FEMA to jump in faster with people and supplies.

It looks like Fugate’s decision to risk being criticized for sending too much too soon to flattened towns than be left explaining why help took so long to arrive worked to at least make victims feel as if the government cared.

“If you can’t tell me it’s not bad, I’m going to assume it’s bad … and go,” Fugate told The Associated Press as he flew from Alabama — where 250 died — to tour the devastated town of Smithville, Miss.

On Tuesday, more rain was forecast for several of the tornado-damaged states— Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia — though this round was expected to be more of a nuisance to survivors and volunteers than anything severe.

Fugate said there was plenty more work to do and the cleanup and recovery would be another long-term project.

And though he has been quick to remind anyone who will listen that the states are in charge of responding to the storms, Fugate’s office has also been making sure everyone knows what his agency is up to with a flurry of press releases outlining each step.

Questions about the public relations of disaster response are of little concern to Fugate, who was Florida’s emergency management director during a quadruplet of hurricanes that pummeled the state in 2004 and then jumped to the aid of neighboring Gulf Coast states in Katrina’s aftermath.

“I don’t care,” Fugate says flatly of his public image. “I’m not worried about my reputation; I’m not worried about my press clippings. I’m worried about the survivors.”

Nevertheless, the reaction on the ground has been overwhelmingly positive, even if some folks aren’t entirely sure who is in charge yet.

FEMA hadn’t yet opened a disaster relief office in Tuscaloosa, Ala., by Sunday afternoon and Marty Fields hadn’t seen anyone from the government stopping by with offers of assistance, despite the massive tree that fell into his wood-frame home and opened a gash in the roof. Still, he wasn’t complaining.

“I don’t have any complaints,” Fields said. “If they were just dealing with this one area I may not be too happy. But it’s such a wide area.”

By Monday afternoon, FEMA officials reported they opened 11 disaster recovery centers in Alabama and nearly 18,000 households in the state had already registered for FEMA assistance. The agency also said more than $2 million had been approved so far for temporary housing and home repairs late Monday and more than $1.1 million via a joint state-federal program for disaster-related needs. It said some 1,500 households in Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee had registered for FEMA assistance and officials were rushing to dole it out.

Helping ease the pain are people like the volunteers who stopped by to help cut the tree off his roof, Fields said. The insurance man already has contacted him, and utility crews are working as quickly as they can, he said.

There was a similar tone from residents in Smithville, Miss., where much of the town was destroyed. As local officials thanked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Fugate and others for the federal response, chain saws whirred in the background as volunteers and aid workers scurried through the damage.

In Cordova, a devastated town northwest of Birmingham, a high school that had organized a massive relief effort was turning it over to the Salvation Army — somewhat reluctantly.

What started out as a small, informal effort to help quickly turned into a highly structured, operation run by the principal and a group of administrators, teachers, parents and students. They split into teams to handle off-loading, sorting and distribution of supplies and perform traffic control around the high school. Others tarped houses and delivered hot meals to tornado victims who couldn’t get to the school.

Residents of one destroyed neighborhood in Birmingham, Ala., heaped praise on the government Sunday as Napolitano, whose department oversees FEMA, and others toured the region.

“It’s nice to see you here,” Sheila Hurd told Napolitano as she stood on a pile of rubble that used to be a house in the neighborhood where she’d spent her entire life. “We really appreciate it.”

Hurd and her sister, Stephanie Anderson, spent part of Sunday afternoon sifting through the twisted metal and splintered wood remains of the neighborhood, looking for anything they could find that belonged to their mother, who died when her house was destroyed.

The two women, who repeatedly thanked Napolitano and others for being in the area so quickly after the storm, said they were most grateful that their mother’s body had been found.

“I don’t know how, who made what happen, but we found her,” Hurd said with a soft smile as she hoisted heaps of dust covered clothes retrieved from the rubble.

Fugate said he would prefer that the government’s response be about 24 hours faster on the housing front, including getting people the kind of blue tarpaulins that became ubiquitous after Katrina and other Gulf hurricanes.

Overall, Fugate and Napolitano said they are pleased with the response so far.

He said his FEMA teams, and scores of other federal responders from the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other agencies were working in the background to help coordinate whatever help state governments may need.

The goal, Fugate said, is to anticipate what will be needed and where and get supplies and support moving in that direction.

“If you’re waiting to assess, to figure out how bad it is, you’re probably too late,” Fugate said on the short trip from Alabama to Mississippi.

Associated Press writer Jay Reeves in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Michael Rubinkam in Cordova, Ala., contributed to this report.

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