EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. – When floodwaters knocked out the water treatment plant in Mason City, Iowa, FEMA rolled into town and promptly set up an account with a Pepsi bottler to supply bottled water. Then FEMA officials moved into a vacant store and began handing out the stuff.
"We saw different FEMA people in and out," City Administrator Brent Trout said. "We really started seeing FEMA people showing up to see what was going on in town and putting out the word on flood assistance."
Nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina turned FEMA into a punchline, many homeowners, politicians and community leaders in the flood-stricken Midwest say that so far, the agency is doing a heckuva job — and they mean it.
Up and down the Big Muddy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is being commended for responding quickly and surely.
"The lessons we learned from Katrina we've taken very seriously," said Glenn Cannon, FEMA assistant administrator for disaster operations. He added: "We've changed the way we do business. We don't wait to react."
After Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, FEMA came into New Orleans late and unprepared, and soon became a symbol of government bungling. President Bush's compliment to FEMA Director Michael D. Brown — "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job!" — became a big joke.
Now, storms and flooding in the upper Midwest have left 24 people dead, driven tens of thousands from their homes and caused billions in damage.
After the rain started falling in early June, FEMA arrived with 13 million sandbags to pile onto the levees, 200 generators, and 30 trucks to haul off debris. Across the upper Midwest, the agency has delivered nearly 3.6 million liters of water and 192,000 ready-to-eat meals. About 650 inspectors are working in Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin alone.
In Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin alone, FEMA has received about 45,000 registrations for assistance from disaster victims. The agency has already handed out $81 million in housing assistance funds, said Carlos Castillo, a FEMA official.
Flooded-out homeowners said FEMA has been quick to dispense checks, and leaders in inundated towns in Iowa said the agency wasted little time in assessing damage. That is key to getting federal disaster declarations that trigger eligibility for assistance, including money to help repair or replace a home.
"They have been trying hard to be proactive throughout this crisis, and had people on site almost immediately after the flooding began," said Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge.
Senators on both sides of the river, Missouri's Claire McCaskill and Illinois' Dick Durbin, Democrats who rarely miss a chance to criticize the Bush administration, are offering good early reviews of FEMA's response to this disaster.
"I think they've made a world of improvement both in terms of their preparedness and in terms of their attitude," McCaskill said. "My sense is they are no longer thinking they can deliver disaster relief from a cubicle in Virginia and are fully engaged on the ground."
FEMA has had a presence in the Midwest since December, when severe ice storms caused widespread damage in Missouri. Field desks were set up after torrential rains and flooding in Missouri in March, and after tornadoes devastated parts of several central states, including Iowa and Missouri, later in the spring.
Officials from the federal agency began arriving at Missouri flood sites such as Canton and Hannibal more than a week before the river's crest, serving as advisers to state and local emergency authorities.
"It just kept going. You had the tornadoes and then the floods," FEMA spokesman Jim Homstad said.
Still, the disaster is far from over. Keithsburg, Ill., Mayor Jim Stewart said the real test will be how the agency that bought out 108 properties after the Great Flood of '93 flood helps the town get back on its feet again.
"We need that help this time," Stewart said. "We're going to be begging and pleading for that help from FEMA."
In hard-hit Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the bursting Cedar River forced 25,000 of the town's 125,000 residents to evacuate, the floodwaters swamped the home of 32-year-old Amber DeWald, and everything but the foundation will probably have to be demolished.
She said she heard from FEMA soon after she contacted the agency and is already on track to receive rental assistance and other benefits.
"They might not be visible out on the streets," she said, "but I feel they've been doing an excellent job."
Don Weaver's home in Cedar Rapids was condemned after the flood collapsed a wall. The FEMA employee he worked with told him that when his house was safe enough to enter, another inspector would come out and help him apply for assistance. In the meantime, Weaver, 54, has already gotten his first $100 FEMA rental-assistance check.
One thing the Midwest probably won't see will be FEMA trailer parks similar to those that sprang up after Katrina. The agency said it believes there is ample existing housing for those whose homes will need extensive repairs or are beyond hope.
FEMA's grades are not report-card perfect. Mike and Jeanna White had deep floodwaters in the first floor of their Cedar Rapids home, so they called FEMA. More than a week later, they had heard nothing back.
"I know they're probably dealing with a lot of people and they're really busy," Mike White said. "I thought that after Katrina they'd be a lot more responsive, move a lot quicker to help folks."
Auto body worker Jeremy Schirm, 36, said floodwaters got within 7 inches of the ceiling in the basement housing his son's room. FEMA, he said, has been uncooperative.
"I'm still waiting to hear a response from them," he said. "I always thought FEMA was there to help out flood victims. But from kind of talking to them, they're not going to do nothing."
But in East St. Louis, city disaster services coordinator Rocco Goins said three FEMA inspectors arrived not long after questions started swirling about whether the levee protecting the impoverished city could withstand the surging Mississippi River. They checked the integrity of the levee, ensured it was sound and offered support.
"I very much give FEMA their props," Goins said. "What happened in Katrina didn't happen here. In my opinion, FEMA was totally on top of it."