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Lessons From Katrina Boost FEMA's Sandy Response

Victims of Superstorm Sandy wait in line to apply for recovery assistance at a FEMA processing center Friday on New York's Coney Island. The agency has been praised for its response to the storm.
Bebeto Matthews
Victims of Superstorm Sandy wait in line to apply for recovery assistance at a FEMA processing center Friday on New York's Coney Island. The agency has been praised for its response to the storm.

Following Superstorm Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has received good grades from politicians and even some survivors of the storm. In part, that's due to lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina seven years ago.

For Staten Island resident Deb Smith, whose house was flooded by the storm surge from Sandy, FEMA has been a savior.

"What a hell of an organization. I got on the phone with them yesterday, I got my claim number in already, the guy said he's going to call me in a couple of days," she says. "He's going to come out and estimate, and they said, listen, whatever doesn't work, they're going to help us put stuff in storage."

The reviews are almost as glowing from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and other local officials in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. They've praised FEMA for being prepared before the storm and responsive immediately afterward — which did not happen when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005.

Agency Gets A Makeover

"FEMA is a very different organization than it was during Katrina," says Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Lieberman chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which helped spur post-Katrina reforms at the agency. Those changes, Lieberman says, have proved themselves during Sandy.

"[FEMA] was proactive, and it didn't used to be. It doesn't wait for the storm to hit; it pre-positions personnel, equipment, food supplies, water, etc.," he says.

FEMA had hundreds of thousands of liters of bottled water, along with millions of meals, cots and blankets stockpiled, which were moved into the region ahead of Sandy.

The agency also had President Obama sign disaster declarations before the details of those disasters were fully known. Lieberman says that was important, too, to start the money flowing immediately to local governments and survivors.

"You used to have to fill out a lot of paperwork to get eligibility for disaster assistance from the president. Today, they're being much more commonsensical about it," he says.

Federal officials say FEMA has some $3.6 billion in its Disaster Relief Fund and billions more available in other accounts, if needed. It has already begun spending that money. Some $19 million has gone out to storm victims to pay for temporary housing.

Cutting Through The Bureaucracy

The good reviews of FEMA extend to the agency's leader, administrator Craig Fugate. Fugate was tapped by Obama to head the agency after leading the Florida Division of Emergency Management. That experience is key, says James Kendra, who heads the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.

"FEMA really benefits from having an administrator who's very well-versed in the science of disaster, who's very familiar with the disaster research," Kendra says, "and because he himself comes from a fire- and first-response background, has a very high regard for first responders and for the value of local-level initiatives."

Fugate has brushed off praise of his agency's performance, saying he won't be satisfied until everybody who needs housing assistance has it and the power's back on. Barry Scanlon, a former FEMA official who is now president of disaster-management consulting firm Witt Associates, says keeping the bureaucracy at bay will be the true test of FEMA's performance.

"The president came out forcefully the other day and said, 'I do not want any red tape, I don't want any bureaucracy,' and hopefully that spirit of partnership and people working together quickly will stay through the recovery phase," he says. "That's not always the case."

Officials know all too well the reviews of FEMA are likely to become less glowing with each day that passes that the lights remain out and people like Smith can't move back into their homes.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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