FEMA chief details preparations for hurricane season

Acknowledging numerous problems with the agency's response to Hurricane Katrina last year, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director R. David Paulison on Monday described a beefed-up organization that he said would be better able to respond swiftly to the needs of disaster victims during this year's hurricane season.

"FEMA has got to be a more agile, a more flexible organization than it has been in the past, and that's what we wanted to do," Paulison said during a briefing for reporters in Miami.

A key aspect of the improvement has been an effort to increase the supplies available for victims -- and FEMA's ability to deliver them. Paulison said that while FEMA had enough equipment on hand during Katrina, it was not in the right position to be useful.

"What we've gone out and done is purchased a tremendous amount of supplies," he said. For example, according to a White House document, the Homeland Security Department, which includes FEMA, now has 770 truckloads of MREs compared to 180 before Katrina struck. Each truckload serves 10,000 people per day.

FEMA has also vastly increased its supplies of water and ice and doubled its pre-Katrina staff of disaster assistance employees from approximately 4,000 to about 8,000.

FEMA has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the Defense Logistics Agency, which will serve as a "backup" to help move supplies, according to Paulison. He said FEMA has improved its ability to track the movement of supplies, noting that some tractor trailers failed to reach their intended destinations during Katrina.

FEMA has purchased satellite equipment to enable it to have better "situational awareness," according to Paulison, who said the agency had to rely on media reports for some of its information during Katrina. FEMA has also improved its ability to register and locate evacuees, Paulison said.

"All 50 states had people that came out of Katrina," Paulison said. "We didn't know where they were, we didn't know who they were, and we didn't know what their needs were."

FEMA also has sought to streamline the debris removal process, allowing localities to select from debris removal companies listed on the FEMA Web site. "We want to give the local communities as much flexibility as possible as we go through this next storm time," Paulison said.

Paulison said there was abuse and fraud surrounding the FEMA post-Katrina initiative to provide victims with $2,000 of assistance. This time, FEMA has hired an identity verification company to check people's identities and ensure that they are from the disaster zone.

An initial payment of $500 instead of $2,000 will be made to families who "hopefully will be back in their homes within a couple of days," Paulison said. But he added, "If we have to go back and do more, then we can go back and do more."

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