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FEMA seeking to redeem agency reputation with quick response to tornado outbreak

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - 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.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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