Federal agencies aim to polish image in New Orleans

Officials try to squelch slow response complaints.

Officials from several federal agencies have opened a wireless operations center in Louisiana to ensure that the media receive information about government responses to Hurricane Katrina.

Following scathing criticism about the federal government's response to the disaster, public information officials nationwide have descended on the Gulf Coast region. The workers represent the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other key agencies involved in response efforts.

"Although we are concerned about our image and want to give people information, we are really here to help people," said Dean Cushman, an official with FEMA, an agency that has received the brunt of criticism. "Our image comes second."

At the joint information center, which is housed at an old department store in Baton Rouge, La., officials have laptop computers with wireless Internet connections and cellular telephones to "rapidly respond" to media questions. In the media monitoring section, eight officials watch the news constantly and track stories online. Another group churns out press releases on the agencies' efforts, while colleagues respond to inquiries from the media hotline.

Everyone is working 12 hour days, seven days a week, Cushman said.

It is standard procedure for FEMA to establish such information centers after natural disasters, usually within 24 to 48 hours after impact. However, Hurricane Katrina's path of destruction, which left cities without electricity and telecommunications, and with scarce lodging, made it difficult for officials to travel into the areas and open shop.

After a slow start, Cushman said more federal officials are arriving daily, and FEMA estimates that it has more than 2,000 laptops, with another 2,000 in transit to the area. They also have supplied officials with 1,000 cell phones and have 1,000 traditional phone lines functioning. Contracts for Internet and cell service have gone to various telecom companies, Cushman said.

With more than 2,000 FEMA officials on the ground and thousands more from other agencies, Cushman said e-mail serves as the most efficient means of communication. "People are busy," he said, adding that standard phones are not yet dependable.