Late Wednesday, the president declared a federal emergency in Alabama and dispatched Craig Fugate, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to inspect the damage.
Fugate, a former Florida state emergency management director, said Thursday that the federal government will take its cues in offering aid from state leaders.
“This is a response being conducted by local responders,” Fugate said, adding that FEMA will maintain “a support role.”
Even before the storms struck, FEMA had already placed several management assistance teams on standby, based on weather reports. The teams include many disaster-relief experts. By Thursday evening, the agency had sent several dozen staffers south, with others expected to arrive Friday.
Aides said Fugate would likely stay overnight in Alabama and return to Washington on Friday after touring damaged areas with Obama.
Fugate and his former state emergency colleagues widely panned FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina and other deadly hurricanes in 2005. When he assumed control of the agency in 2009, Fugate retooled the agency’s response plans, placing more control in the hands of regional administrators, who are expected to keep in close touch with state and local leaders.
That plan earned praise Thursday from Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R), who had asked for help from Washington.
“We are very thankful that we have FEMA with us here today,” Bentley said in Tuscaloosa.
Earlier in the day, Bentley and Fugate had said the size and magnitude of the tornadoes — and not a lack of preparation — were responsible for the high number of deaths. Thursday’s storm system, which stretched from Louisiana to North Carolina, ranks as one of the deadliest to hit the United States in decades.
“People are very aware in Alabama of tornadoes,” Bentley said. “You just cannot move massive amounts of people when it hits a largely populated area like Tuscaloosa. You cannot move thousands of people in five minutes.”
White House aides said Obama received regular updates Thursday from Fugate and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
As the federal tornado response ramped up, administration officials also took part Thursday in a regional earthquake drill that involved several Midwestern states as well as Alabama and Tennessee.
The drills, aimed at raising awareness among families, schools, universities and businesses along the New Madrid Seismic Zone, come weeks before a major national-level disaster exercise.
Fugate said it was important for Thursday's drill to proceed despite the tornado damage.
“We do have to be prepared for concurrent natural disasters occurring in this country, earthquakes being one of them,” he said.