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Getting ready for the gathering storm

By Kate King

Burgaw, North Carolina, is about 20 miles inland, but that didn't protect it from Hurricane Fran in 1996.



Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Emergency Planning
Michael Chertoff

(CNN) -- Julie Steele lives 100 miles from the North Carolina coast, but she's still worried about the coming hurricane season.

She remembers when Hurricane Fran stormed through in 1996, causing more damage inland than on the seafront, crushing houses and uprooting trees.

After watching last year's fierce storms, Steele and her husband are collecting enough food, water and medicine for their own "worst-case scenario." They've even taken down all their pine trees, which would likely be uprooted if a hurricane hit.

Hurricane season "has been so bad recently," she said, "and it doesn't look like it's going to get any better."

Hurricanes have always been a concern for people living on or near the coast, but last year's season upped the ante.

The massive and lingering devastation of Katrina, the record-breaking power of Wilma and the unprecedented 27 named storms in 2005 have people paying attention in 2006 as never before.

One major question is whether the government agencies that respond to hurricanes are ready.

In Louisiana, where many of the wounds of Katrina are still open and painful, state and local officials are scrambling to prepare for the next assault. (Full story)

At the national level, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is under scrutiny. FEMA received scathing criticism for its handling of Katrina and the flooding that followed. At least four panels have investigated the response. None gave the government a good grade; adjectives like "dismal" and "bumbling" were standard.

  • In February, a House Republican committee called the response "a national failure" and said "it remains difficult to understand how government could respond so ineffectively to a disaster that was anticipated for years."
  • A week later, the White House issued 125 recommendations for improving communications, evacuation, search and rescue and community awareness and suggested an increased military role in times of national disaster. The White House singled out 11 improvements to be completed by the time hurricane season begins.
  • The next report card came from the inspector general of FEMA's parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security. It said the widespread criticism was mostly deserved and recommended 38 changes.
  • A Senate committee also weighed in, saying FEMA should be abolished and replaced with a new agency that reports directly to the president. "FEMA is discredited, demoralized, and dysfunctional. It is beyond repair," said the committee chairwoman, Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins.
  • 11 changes by June 1

    start quoteI really see no indication that the country is any better prepared for this season than for last year.end quote
    -- Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado

    Publicly, FEMA has kept its focus on the 11 changes the White House wants finished by June 1. The agency says it's on track to meet those goals. Among them:

  • A real-time satellite tracking plan for commodities such as water, medicine and food.
  • A new relationship with the Pentagon to stockpile supplies.
  • New rules for debris removal, making it easier for communities to hire local contractors rather than relying on the Army Corps of Engineers.
  • New communications technology, from mobile radios to satellite systems, and a plan to make it available as a backup for local systems.
  • Designating federal coordinating officials ahead of the hurricane season so they can meet and train with local officials.
  • Doubling the number of disaster assistance employees.
    Acting FEMA Director David Paulison says the agency will be ready "regardless of the size of the storm."

    "We are going to be ready, regardless of the size of the storm, this next year," said David Paulison, acting FEMA director.

    But others are not so confident.

    "I really see no indication that the country is any better prepared for this season than for last year," said Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado, which researches and supports disaster planning and response.

    "I hear a lot about new plans, new training, things that the [DHS] and FEMA are putting in motion. We have no idea whether these things will amount to better preparedness or better performance in the upcoming hurricane season."

    Among the post-Katrina changes the agencies point to with pride is Paulison's appointment as FEMA's acting director. Unlike Michael Brown, his predecessor who resigned under fire for his handling of Katrina, Paulison has a long record in emergency services.

    A rescue firefighter, Paulison rose through the ranks to become chief of the Miami-Dade Fire Department, then went to Washington as fire administrator at FEMA. His nomination as director was supported by the National Emergency Management Association.

    But Tierney says emergency management is an established profession with certifications and advanced degrees and suggested that FEMA could do even better.

    "There are very experienced certified emergency managers, people with Ph.D.s in sociology and public administration that are emergency managers, and ... we actually do know who is qualified," she said. "Those are not the people who are in charge [at FEMA and DHS].

    "It would require a complete change in the culture of the [DHS], a complete change in the priorities of the [DHS], and a significant shuffling of personnel to get people who actually know what emergency management is about into very high positions within the [DHS]," she said.

    FEMA: 'All response is local'
    DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff says the federal government's job is to back up state and local responders.
    start quoteIt is a civic responsibility for Americans to prepare for themselves and take care of their families for at least that first 72 hours.end quote
    -- Acting FEMA Director David Paulison

    Meanwhile, FEMA continues to emphasize that state and local governments are the primary first responders in any disaster.

    "All response is local," Paulison told state and local emergency managers at a hurricane preparedness conference in Orlando, Florida, this spring.

    "It belongs in the hands of those closer to the incident. It belongs to the state and local officials -- how you put together the evacuation plan [and] shelter locations, [how] you educate the residents on preparedness, on how and where to evacuate, where to go, what to do."

    As DHS secretary Michael Chertoff told the group, "The federal government does have a role to play ... and a clear responsibility to backstop the state and local response when your ability to deal with a disaster has been overwhelmed."

    FEMA's talking points also stress that individuals and families should be prepared.

    "Any individual who is able to evacuate or rescue himself from danger has a moral and a civic obligation to do it," Chertoff told the Orlando conference.

    "There are people who can't help themselves. And if the first responders are forced to help the able-bodied rescue themselves, they can't help those people who don't have the ability to help themselves," Chertoff said.

    Added Paulison: "It is a civic responsibility for Americans to prepare for themselves and take care of their families for at least that first 72 hours."

    State and local emergency management agencies also are urging citizens and businesses to prepare and offering advice and checklists on how to do it.

    States, counties and cities have taken a variety of other steps. Florida passed a 12-day sales tax holiday on hurricane preparedness supplies such as flashlights and generators. Alabama set up a plan for hurricane shelters at community colleges. Mississippi worked on making a list of people who would not be able to handle their own evacuation in an emergency.

    But one study found that most Americans were not any better prepared after watching Katrina than they were before.

    Paul Light of New York University told CNN that Katrina "did not constitute the wake-up call. ... There's a big 'well, it didn't happen to us.' "

    "Although most [Americans] have enough canned goods and bottled water to last a few days, the vast majority place their faith in their local police, fire and charities to tell them what to do," Light said in his study.

    'Not a whole lot you can do'
    Gabriel Black and daughter, Stevi, sit outside his rented home and FEMA trailer in Metairie, Louisiana.

    Meanwhile, residents of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts who spoke to CNN appear to be philosophical about the ability of anyone -- themselves, their local and state governments or even federal officials -- to fully prepare for this year's hurricanes.

    "You can only prepare so much, but whatever is going to be is going to be," said Sal Martorano of Lake Geneva, Florida. "There is no real way to tell what is going to happen."

    Likewise, Marty Joyce and his fiancee -- who lost "furniture, clothes, car, computers, everything" in Hurricane Wilma only months after moving to Marathon, Florida -- are not considering leaving the Keys.

    "There's not a whole lot you can do about it," he said. "We're just going to take it as it comes. ... When it's not hurricane season, it's paradise. You want to live down here, and that's the price you pay."

    Lori Grear, however, isn't waiting to find out what's in store.

    When she and her family moved to Florida in 1997, they weren't worried about hurricanes. That changed dramatically when Hurricane Charley hit in 2004. Grear remembers huddling with her terrified children under a mattress while the storm pounded their home.

    "It was one of the most scary situations I've ever been in," she said.

    When Hurricane Ivan headed for the Grears' house less than a month later, they evacuated, knowing they might come home to nothing. The next year, they watched Katrina devastate New Orleans, then waited to see if Wilma would hit them.

    This year, they are leaving Cape Coral and moving back to Michigan.

    "We cannot be out fast enough for me," she said. "Maybe there are some places that people just aren't supposed to live."

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