OAKLAND, Calif. – The Federal Emergency Management Agency is quietly drawing up plans for a handful of disasters: devastating earthquakes beneath San Francisco and St. Louis and catastrophic storms in South Florida and Hawaii, FEMA's chief said Thursday.
In a departure from its traditional expectation that states develop such responses, the agency is forming "base plans" for responding to specific calamities, FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press.
FEMA officials expect to finish plans for a massive Bay Area quake by the end of the year and are at work on another response blueprint for a large quake on the New Madrid fault, which runs from southern Illinois to northeastern Arkansas and lurks beneath St. Louis, Paulison said.
FEMA also is preparing for a Category 5 hurricane in the Miami area and has nearly completed response guidelines for a failure of the 143-mile dike around Lake Okeechobee, northwest of Miami, he said. About 45,000 people live in flood-prone areas around the lake.
Also, the agency recently began assembling response plans for a catastrophic hurricane in Hawaii, Paulison said.
Last year, Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer expressed dismay that the federal government did not have a plan to respond to a catastrophic earthquake in their home state of California.
In March 2006, Paulison's boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, called those concerns unwarranted and said federal officials were fulfilling their duties by meeting with state emergency management planners and reviewing their plans.
"They've got to write it," Chertoff said then of the state's primary role in a response plan.
Yet by late last year, FEMA's regional offices — not Washington headquarters — were well into the writing of some of the planning documents, a process that Paulison said began before Boxer and Feinstein aired their objections.
"We recognize that we've got to do catastrophic planning," Paulison said in Thursday's interview at FEMA's regional headquarters.
A spokesman for Chertoff did not immediately return an after-hours call for comment.
The federal government spent $5 million to develop the Florida plans, about $17 million for the New Madrid plan, $1.5 million for Hawaii and $1 million for northern California.
Next year, FEMA hopes to obtain additional funding to write another plan for an earthquake catastrophe in Southern California, said Nancy Ward, the administrator for the FEMA region that includes California, Arizona, Nevada, Guam, Hawaii and other Pacific islands.
FEMA has adopted a more aggressive stance toward disasters since Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the Southeast in 2005. Paulison called it a "culture change" at FEMA.
Paulison did not mention a base plan for the New Orleans area, but FEMA officials said the agency worked closely with state and local authorities to complete a New Orleans-area disaster plan.
Paulison said the old model of waiting for states to plead for federal help was a recipe for "sequential failure."
"We've got to go in as partners. We've got to stand side by side," he said.
"We're going to move in early, we're not going to wait for the state to ask for things before we start moving them, we're going to anticipate what the needs are, and then when they ask for them, we're going to be there," he said. "The worst that can happen is they don't need them."