WASHINGTON – Competition for relief supplies and confusion about who's in charge could hobble preparations for the brewing hurricane season, say state officials.
Just over a week before the June 1 start of the storm season, the Homeland Security Department has nearly finished 11 top-priority changes to nation's beleaguered disaster response agency.
But emergency directors in a half-dozen Gulf and Atlantic coast states are wary of some of the repairs to the Federal Emergency Management Agency as it quadruples its stockpile of ready-made meals, marshals teams of fast-moving responders and gathers high-tech equipment to help emergency workers talk to each other when normal communication systems are knocked out.
"I don't have a good feeling, to be honest with you," said Mississippi emergency management director Robert Latham.
He said FEMA has done little to coordinate with states on stocking and distributing food, water, ice and other items to disaster sites — meaning states could end up competing against the federal government to purchase relief supplies.
"What can we expect and how quickly we can expect it? What is going to be pre-positioned in our states?" Latham said. "That is what is important. I know they're working feverishly to develop that plan, but we need to know."
In Louisiana, which suffered much of Hurricane Katrina's damage after it pummeled the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, state officials maintain Washington still hasn't done enough to help them get ready. That is despite $87.5 billion in federal aid to Gulf states, much of which has gone to Louisiana to compensate victims and to repair housing, levees and control flooding.
Requests for the federal government to send Louisiana air ambulances, 250 buses and extra shelter space have so far gone unanswered, said state emergency director Col. Jeff Smith.
"They are looking us straight in the eye, and they are saying 'We'll be here, and we'll provide support for you,'" Smith said. "So they're saying the right things, but they have not fully said yes."
Though the White House called for tighter coordination among all levels of government, state directors said they remain confused about the new role of a federal disaster oversight commander — or how it fits into the chain of command.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Tuesday the agency had learned from its mistakes last year.
"We've had the opportunity to look back. Obviously, Katrina was an unprecedented storm," Chertoff said on ABC's "Good Morning America." "It sets the upper bound of what we might have to fear. ...It gave us the opportunity to really test what failed and come up with some specific remedies."
He said it was also important for people living in hurricane areas to prepare by stockpiling supplies and evacuating if instructed. "If people cooperate, if they get themselves prepared, if they list to instructions, we are in a much better position this year to avoid the kind of tragedy we had last year," Chertoff said.
In an interview Monday, Homeland Security Undersecretary George Foresman said the department and FEMA have gone far beyond the 11 fixes that the White House ordered by June 1, the hurricane season's start, to plug federal preparedness gaps that Katrina exposed.
Aside from creating or revamping systems to track supplies, alerting the public to approaching storms and registering evacuated victims in shelters and hotels, Foresman said the department has been working closely with state and local officials to make sure they are in sync with Washington long before disaster hits. But, he said, many of the federal changes are largely designed to back up state and local responders whose efforts have failed.
"I understand the concerns that are expressed, but we have to recognize that the federal government is not the responder of the first resort," Foresman said. "It's a responder of last resort. There are a lot of things the state and locals need to be doing as well."
Asked about the coordination worries, Foresman said: "We are focusing on addressing issues in a relative priority ranking. And this is not the first thing, nor will it be the last thing, on the list."
Mike Lindell, director of the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center at Texas A&M University, said the top priorities only skim the surface of necessary federal preparations. He said they fail to address plans that have immediate and personal impact on lives, like staggered evacuation routes and mapping where a looming disaster might strike.