NEW ORLEANS – People displaced by future hurricanes will probably not get the $2,000 federal handout that went to Hurricane Katrina and Rita evacuees last year, a top official in the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Sunday.
The elimination of that post-hurricane financial aid is one of many changes in the agency's tactics this year, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Harvey Johnson, who was named FEMA deputy director in April, said in an interview.
He wouldn't give specifics on the elimination of the $2,000 payment or what might replace it.
The details of the changes — including streamlined ways of handling evacuations, transportation, shelters and debris removal — will be explained in a letter this week from Michael Chertoff, head of the Department of Homeland Security, to the governors of the 12 coastal states vulnerable to Atlantic hurricanes, Johnson said.
He said his agency has improved since the storms of 2005 and the flood of criticism that followed its slow response to Katrina.
"We're not where we want to be ... but we're miles ahead of where we were," Johnson said.
Hurricane season began June 1 and runs through November, with August and September usually the months of peak activity.
Johnson participated in a panel discussion on hurricane preparedness Sunday at the annual meeting of the Southern Governors Association, held in downtown New Orleans, one section of the hurricane-ravaged city that is recovering well from Katrina. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco is chairwoman of the group.
Blanco, a critic of FEMA's response to Katrina, said "it's hard to say" how much progress FEMA has made because it has yet to respond to a hurricane since its policies were overhauled. She said she hoped improvements in readiness by both her government and by FEMA will make hurricane response more effective after Katrina.
"We're hoping our effectiveness, combined with their effectiveness, will really serve our people well," she said.
Johnson said his agency has improved plans for coordinating transportation — getting people out of storm-threatened areas — and having shelters ready. Much red tape and paperwork has been eliminated, he said, citing in particular a streamlined system for getting Pentagon approval to use military trucks.
"All those skids have been greased now," he said.
Blanco and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour both questioned Johnson on FEMA's plans to provide evacuees better temporary housing than cramped travel trailers. Blanco suggested small houses known as "Katrina cottages" that have been popping up along the Gulf coast. The structures are quickly built and more spacious and durable than the trailers, she said.
Johnson agreed that trailers are inappropriate, saying Congress has supplied FEMA with $400 million to come up with a better solution for the thousands of families who can be displaced by a hurricane.
"I think we found with mobile homes, travel trailers, one size does not fit all," he said.
Also attending the conference were Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who returned home Sunday because of the death of his lieutenant governor, Win Rockefeller, of complications from a blood disorder.