WASHINGTON — The Federal Emergency Management Agency is still not ready to respond to a Gulf Coast natural disaster akin to Hurricane Katrina despite its success in flooded Midwestern states.
That’s the conclusion of an independent disaster researcher and key Texas officials who have monitored FEMA’s far-flung response to flooding across Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri over the past few weeks.
The hurricane season challenges facing the agency remain daunting, they said. Plans for evacuations and temporary housing must be made final, and residents must be persuaded to assemble emergency kits with a 72-hour supply of food, water and medicines to give first-responders time to reach them.
“It’s hard to tell whether the FEMA response in the Midwest is a precursor for what FEMA can do and can’t do,” said Joseph E. Trainor, a staff researcher at the University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center. “The agency is in such flux even now, still trying to readjust from Katrina.”
Hurricane Katrina had an apocalyptic impact in 2005. It claimed the lives of nearly 1,900 people, forced evacuation of more than 1.1 million others, ousted 770,000 from their homes and caused an estimated $96 billion in damage. Hurricane Rita followed quickly, claiming at least 120 lives and causing more than $11 billion in damage.
Authorities deployed 50,000 National Guard troops from 54 states, and more than 14,000 active duty military personnel.
The upheaval across the Midwest pales by comparison. Flooding across at least 3.4 million acres in the five states has claimed at least 22 lives, injured 149 and temporarily displaced thousands. So far, authorities have called in only 2,300 National Guard troops.
FEMA has received nearly 59,100 requests for assistance and doled out more than $124 million in housing and disaster-related assistance. The Small Business Administration has provided 226 emergency loans, valued at $14.3 million.
Yet fewer than 500 flood victims sought refuge in Red Cross-style shelters at the start of the disaster, because so many neighbors stepped in to offer victims a place to stay.
“These are extremely low shelter figures for an event of this nature,” said David Garrett, a top official in FEMA’s disaster assistance operation.
The limited demands on FEMA in the Midwest leave some Texans wondering whether the agency could respond effectively on a far larger scale. Some 5,000 displaced families still live in travel trailers nearly three years after Katrina.
“The jury is still out,” said Rep. Al Green, D-Houston, a member of the House Financial Service Committee that deals with housing issues.
“A work in progress,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
FEMA would face challenges providing emergency housing and forcing evacuees to find temporary housing in communities across the country, said Michael Gerber, the top official of the Texas Housing and Community Affairs Department.
“It is very hard to plan for a mass migration of people – we saw that with Hurricane Rita,” he said. “The big message here is that the state and federal government need to have done a stronger job being ready to meet that challenge, should it happen again.”
FEMA’s updated housing plan for the 2008 hurricane season emphasizes helping displaced victims initially find refuge in shelters. If victims’ homes are severely damaged or destroyed, FEMA plans to move the displaced into nearby apartments, hotels and motels. Only as last resort will 3,500 mobile homes be called into action, many of the same FEMA trailers that stirred controversy after authorities found high levels of formaldehyde more than two years after Katrina and Rita victims began reporting illnesses.
Looking ahead, FEMA is spending $400 million to assess different ways to provide that temporary housing with pilot projects in Texas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to test the use of modular homes capable of being transported by trailer.
The Harris County Housing Authority is awaiting final approval by FEMA and the Texas housing department to use part of a $16.5 million federal grant to create a 20-unit community of pre-fabricated homes manufactured by the Germany-based Heston Group, a firm that has provided housing for 90,000 soldiers in Iraq.
The $77,500 units, expected to be inhabited for no more than two years, are designed with 8-foot by 20-foot panels that can fit into a shipping container and be assembled by six workers in eight hours. The first of the 20 units has yet to be erected in Houston. Another 130 units are expected to be erected in other East Texas areas affected by the 2005 hurricanes.
FEMA officials remain upbeat about their ability to win back public confidence.
“The response to the floods in the Midwest demonstrates clearly that the FEMA of today is not the FEMA of 2005,” said Glenn Cannon, an agency official. “We have risen to the level of what the American public expects from us.”
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said FEMA, an agency in his department, has improved tracking supplies, established advance contracts for bus evacuations, and added more full-time disaster response specialists.
“We still have more work to do.” Chertoff said. “I think certainly in the response area, all the instances we’ve had over the last year, FEMA is much quicker, more responsive …
“It’s generally a more capable agency.”