High and Dry

One Arkansas town is not buying FEMA's makeover.

Don't try telling the residents of Dumas, Ark., about the "new and improved" Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA's makeover after Hurricane Katrina has not gone over particularly well in this rural countryside.

On Feb. 24, 2007, a pair of tornadoes wreaked havoc on Dumas, a small town located roughly 90 miles southeast of Little Rock. When the dust finally settled, 37 families were homeless and 800 residents, or about 10 percent of the population, were left temporarily unemployed.

Brandy Lay was one of the unfortunate few who lost both her home and her job at the Arkat Nutrition animal feed plant. Stubbornly resilient, Lay and her husband, Sonny, began to reassemble the pieces of their suddenly tattered lives. The couple, along with their two young sons, moved in with relatives as they began the extensive process of rebuilding their home. Despite her anguish, Lay was confident that help, in the form of federal assistance, soon would be on its way. It would be a long wait.

Three days after the storm, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe asked President Bush for a federal emergency declaration, which would have enabled FEMA to tap into its supply of more than 8,400 new mobile homes the agency purchased after Katrina and stored at a depot 160 miles away. But it would take another 10 days for the Bush administration to finally deny the governor's request for federal aid, thereby putting the trailers just out of reach. The 1984 Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act prevents FEMA from turning over federal property to states without an emergency declaration. But at a March 16 House Homeland Security hearing on FEMA's response to the tornadoes, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Harvey Johnson, the agency's deputy director, said a waiver could have been granted, but wasn't.

In the meantime, the residents of Dumas and other nearby cities pulverized by the storm were forced to rely on local churches and the American Red Cross for temporary housing, food and supplies. "I just don't know what the federal government expects us to do," Lay said weeks after the storm. "Regardless of whether we have insurance, we still have to rebuild and we still need to find a place to live."

Faced with mounting political pressure, FEMA eventually relented and turned over 40 used mobile homes and travel trailers. But even that became a logistical nightmare. A private transit crew hauled the trailers to Dumas, but left it up to the state to mount the units and install them with water and electricity. Johnson said FEMA's hands were tied and that only a legislative fix to the Stafford Act will prevent this problem from recurring.

But some in Congress believe it's FEMA that needs to change. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., says that more than a year and a half after the stumbles of Katrina, FEMA still is burdened with a massive and unyielding bureaucracy that prevents it from reacting flexibly to conditions on the ground. Others in Congress, however, whisper of more duplicitous political machinations. Rep. Marion Berry, another Arkansas Democrat, concluded at the March 16 hearing that the reason his state was denied federal aid was because of its left-leaning legislature. He points to Alabama and Georgia, both of which received federal disaster designations less than two days after they were devastated by tornadoes, and both of which lean politically to the right. "The way you run your agency is a damn disgrace," Berry chided Johnson, his voice cracking with rage. "You should all be ashamed of yourselves . . . FEMA is an incompetent bunch of nincompoops that can't run their own agency."

While most dismiss Berry's claims as conspiratorial, the Dumas debacle once again has tarnished FEMA's reputation. A House aide who asked to remain anonymous contends that FEMA fundamentally has not changed since Katrina made landfall in August 2005.

"There's nothing new and improved about FEMA," says the aide, who is familiar with the trailer dispute. "If this is the new and improved FEMA, then I don't want anything to do with it."

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