FEMA chief says agency continues to be understaffed

The chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency disclosed Friday that his agency has less than 84 percent of its authorized personnel, even though he told lawmakers in March that he wanted his manpower strength to be at 95 percent by the start of hurricane season June 1.

Despite the staffing shortage, R. David Paulison, who took over the troubled agency after last year's Hurricane Katrina disaster, said FEMA's authorized workforce of 2,400 employees is not optimal and said he is "working with Congress" to "significantly increase" the size of the agency.

Speaking at a news conference sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service, Paulison said FEMA now has about 2,000 full-time employees. "We're not where I want to be. No question about it," he said.

Paulison described hiring in government as "arduous" and "complicated," saying the agency needs to be sure it is hiring the right people. "I simply, simply will not bring people on who don't have the experience, and years of experience, in dealing with disasters," he said.

Paulison told the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee in March that he had directed the agency to achieve a 95 percent staffing level by June 1. He said the agency probably would not meet that goal, but would come "very darn close."

House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., asserted at the time that FEMA was only at 73 percent of its authorized staffing level. Meanwhile, House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Martin Olav Sabo, D-Minn., observed that the lack of experienced staff contributed to government failures in responding to Hurricane Katrina.

At his news conference, Paulison said he is confident that FEMA has been improved, despite the staffing shortfall. He cited several actions that have been taken to prevent the reoccurrence of the problems that plagued the agency during Hurricane Katrina, noting, for example that he will now have direct access to President Bush in times of a crisis, and that 100 buses have been pre-positioned in likely hurricane-impact areas.

He added that FEMA has improved its digital alert system, procured satellite and mobile communications equipment, put policies in place to enable information sharing at all levels of government, significantly upgraded its headquarters communications system, and will use global positioning system devices to track supplies.

In addition, FEMA has increased its ability to register disaster victims to 200,000 people per day -- twice the number it could during Katrina -- and will go to disaster shelters and deploy mobile vans to reach victims, he said.

Retooling FEMA will have "a major impact," Paulison said. "We cannot let the deaths and the suffering of those Katrina victims go in vain," he said. "We're going to make a better, we're going to make a stronger FEMA."

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