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Homeland Security

US Disaster Official Says Government Prepared for Hurricanes

15 May 2007

The U.S. official in charge of emergency preparedness has pledged there will be no repeat of the chaotic government response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, saying federal authorities are ready to deal with the aftermath of any storm in the new hurricane season that officially begins on June 1, as well as other disasters. VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill.

The government's poor response to Hurricane Katrina which struck the Gulf coast causing severe damage, and overflowing levees in New Orleans, Louisiana, sparked a controversy over emergency management and intensified oversight by Congress.

Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee:

"FEMA will have a lot of explaining to do if it is not ready when a hurricane makes landfall this season," said Bennie Thompson.

FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency, under the Department of Homeland Security, and its director, David Paulison, tried to assure lawmakers there would be no repeat of post-Katrina chaos and mismanagement.

A new FEMA, he says, is prepared with improved logistics, communications and other capabilities, and a proactive attitude:

"You are not going to see the same type of response," said David Paulison. "You are going to see a federal government that is extremely proactive, moving very quickly and making sure that when the state asks for something it is there on the ground waiting for them."

After Hurricane Katrina, congressional and other investigations revealed that poor communication between the federal government and state officials was a key problem hampering a quick response.

Paulison faced tough questions from Gulf coast lawmakers wary of government assurances that Americans and the world will not turn on their televisions in coming months to see a repeat of horrendous scenes in New Orleans and elsewhere.

The FEMA director had this exchange with Texas Congressman Al Green:

GREEN: "The debate last time was whether the governor of Louisiana or the president of the United States should have done something immediately, if not sooner. Is that same system in place?"

PAULISON: "Yes sir."

GREEN: "OK, if that same system is still in place how will we avoid seeing what we saw on television, persons begging for help and nobody showing up?"

Lawmakers took Paulison to task for his agency's failure to produce a revised National Response Plan, with the official pledging this would be completed some time after the June 1 start of the U.S. hurricane season.

An official from the Government Accountability Office, William Jenkins, said FEMA remains an agency transition, and questioned whether the agency is up to the task:

"FEMA faces a formidable challenge as it works to implement the reform act's provisions, change its culture from one of mostly reactive to more proactive, and quickly build its capacity to effectively respond to a major disaster that could occur at any time," he said.

Responding to questions Tuesday, FEMA director Paulison said the federal response to any new major disaster will continue to be based on needs communicated by state and local officials who he described as the true first responders.

That said, Paulison added the federal government does not intend to allow those situations to become overwhelming before stepping in.

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