Following Hurricane Katrina seven years ago, FEMA became a national punching bag, ridiculed for its slow and cumbersome response to the disaster along the Gulf Coast.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy this week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its administrator W. Craig Fugate are garnering more positive reviews from public officials in northeastern states hit by the superstorm, as well as from disaster-management experts.
“The president has been outstanding in this and so have the folks at FEMA,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” show. Officials from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and other storm-struck states have also praised the federal agency’s performance.
“My impression is that this is a different agency than we’ve seen over the last decades, one that post-Katrina had lost a lot of credibility,” said Joseph E. Trainor, an assistant professor with the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.
Trainor added that the FEMA-led pre-positioning of equipment and supplies and the “unprecedented” federal major disaster declaration before the storm hit “shows a level of agility that didn’t exist a couple of years ago.”
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Fugate brushed off a question asking for an assessment of FEMA’s performance. People affected by the storm “don’t care how many press releases you’ve put out,” Fugate said. “. . . All they want to know is: When is my power coming back on? And can you help them get a place to stay?”
Dissatisfaction with FEMA’s performance could rise as power outages and other problems continue. In the hard-hit New York borough of Staten Island, local officials and residents complained Thursday of a slow government response, prompting pledges from members of Congress that more help would be coming.
“A lot of people doubt the capacity of government to learn from past mistakes, but the evidence so far in this case is that there has been learning on the part of the federal government on how to prepare for disasters,” said Edward Alden, director of the Renewing America Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has backed off a suggestion made during a 2011 primary debate in favor of curtailing federal disaster response and letting states and the private sector take on a bigger role.
“We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids,” Romney said at the time.
On Wednesday, the Romney campaign issued a statement supporting FEMA.
“I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters,” Romney said, adding that as president, he would ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to work with states and localities “in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters.”
FEMA’s primary role during disasters is to serve as a coordinator of other federal agencies as well as state, local and nonprofit resources.
Much of the credit for FEMA’s improved image has been given to Fugate, a plain-spoken former paramedic who served as head of Florida’s emergency agency during Katrina. Fugate, who described himself Thursday as “the most impatient . . . person in the world” has made it a priority to better coordinate federal efforts with state and local governments as well as the private sector.
Fugate “is very well-grounded in the history and science of disaster management,” said James Kendra, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. “He has a lot of regard for first-responders and looking at disasters from the community perspective.”
“The track record of FEMA in the past has been not a lot of attention paid to the body of research,” Kendra added.
Until Katrina, few of FEMA’s administrators had experience in emergency management, and the agency did not put a high priority on natural disasters.
FEMA was “reinvigorated” by funding and management changes from the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, said Richard Sylves, a professor with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University.
“The agency’s reputation is a lot better, and it’s more responsive,” Sylves said. “State and local governments generally have good relations with FEMA.”
President Obama, who directed FEMA “to cut through red tape,” has expressed satisfaction with the agency’s performance. “You all deserve a pat on the back,” Obama said Wednesday during a visit to FEMA, according to pool reports.
One criticism leveled at FEMA’s performance came from its former administrator, Michael Brown, who served under President George W. Bush during Katrina. Brown suggested during a radio interview Monday that the Obama administration’s preparations were “premature” before the storm hit land.
“Better to be fast than to be late,” Fugate responded in an interview Tuesday with NPR.
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.