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California Wildfires: FEMA Responds
Agency Vows Aggressive Effort on Wildfires

Pat Philbin
External Affairs Director, Federal Emergency Management Agency
Wednesday, October 24, 2007 1:00 PM

The Bush administration's disaster assistance chief promised no repeat of the Hurricane Katrina experience Wednesday, saying "this is a new FEMA" as Washington weighed options to help California wildfire victims.

"We're going to make sure this operation runs as smoothly as possible given the size of this disaster," David Paulison, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said when asked if people who lost homes can expect a more aggressive response than when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in late summer 2005.

Pat Philbin, external affairs director at FEMA, will be online Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss how FEMA is confronting the disaster in California.

A transcript follows.

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Maryland: Good afternoon Pat. Do you think that FEMA's response will be more effective than their response to Katrina? Already, there are signs that the media is referring to the California victims as "evacuees" instead of immigrants as with Katrina! Definitely the perceptions have changed!

Pat Philbin: FEMA has dramatically improved its coordination and communication capabilities with state, local and federal partners. This has been evident in our response to Hurricane Dean, tornados in the Midwest and in CA. Short answer is yes.

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washingtonpost.com: The first question was inadvertently posted early. Please join us live at 1 p.m. ET when the discussion officially begins. Thank you.

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Pat Philbin: Welcome,

I am the Director of External Affairs for FEMA and look forward to your questions this afternoon. Unfortunately, I only have 30 minutes given the situation in California.

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Decatur, Ill.: What is the best thing people who live in central Illinois can do to aid in the displaced fire victims' needs?

Thank you for the opportunity to ask.

Pat Philbin: Donate to the American Red Cross and other recognized voluntary agencies.

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San Fernando, Calif.: Is there anyone in Washington pushing to prevent or at least discourage people from building houses near potential disaster areas? I know some progress has been made with flood zones, but what about high-risk fire areas? In talking to people out here who build near forests, the standard response is "the Feds will pick up the tab in case of a disaster". That doesn't seem like the message FEMA or others in Washington want to send.

Pat Philbin: Individuals must consider and plan appropriately when building in high-risk areas. Providing they have adequate home, property and flood insurance, then this is a personal choice that is underwritten through private insurers. Personal preparedness (and responsibility) is key and something that we at FEMA are focusing on.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: When I hear comments on television that these fires could reach the seas, if this hyperbole or is it possible that the fires could extend that far?

Pat Philbin: Although this question is more appropriately answered by the National Weather Service, it is my understanding based on media reports that this is a possibility.

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Phoenix, Ariz.: Does having Dave Paulison, former fire chief for Miami Dade, as FEMA director, change the manner in which FEMA responds to this sort of disaster? How does FEMA coordinate with local fire departments, California Division of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service in managing a disaster of this scope?

Pat Philbin: Absolutely. Chief Paulison has brought in more than 30 years of experience in emergency management and this directly guides his leadership style in responding to disasters. Equally important, however, are the leaders that he has hired over the past year--all with many years of experience in law enforcement, EMS, firefighting, military, etc.

We support state and local resources by responding to requests from a Governor. All disasters are local and our objective is to make sure they succeed in their response efforts.

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East Lansing, Mich.: I understand the desire of Americans to have their homes protected. However, the fires in southern California seem to be a recurring problem. Is there something that people living there can do better or that the state of California can do, so that the rest of the country is not having to bail them out of a recurring problem?

Pat Philbin: I would refer people to relevant reference material and web sites that address mitigation efforts that can reduce their risks. As a federal agency, we cannot endorse specific products or materials per se.

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Portland, Ore.: Pat -- thanks for taking my question.

Looking beyond the current disaster in southern California, is there thing that can be done to prevent or lessen this from occurring in the future?

For example very, very wide fire breaks, or improved equipment to fight the fires at an earlier stage in the fire cycle, or whatever(?). Is FEMA working on this in terms of a long range strategy?

I fully realize that the Santa Ana winds cannot be stopped, but surely we can be more proactive to mitigate the damage in the future.

Pat Philbin: FEMA does have catastrophic planning efforts underway for specific areas of concern across the country. For example, this year, we invested significant planning efforts in hurricane-prone areas to better understand vulnerabilities and what resources might be requested in the event of a hurricane. States have different levels of competence and capabilities to respond, so understanding these strengths and weaknesses is key to our response efforts.

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Annapolis, Md.: Good afternoon. One of the things we learned from Katrina is that people will not evacuate without their pets. Have we learned this lesson yet? Are there shelters where people can bring their pets? Thanks.

Pat Philbin: Legislation in the Post Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act requires states to consider pets and service animals in their planning efforts. In fact, the Qualcomm stadium is permitting pets.

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Washington, D.C.: What's the situation at Qualcomm Stadium? Are people being accommodated?

Pat Philbin: There are significant differences at Qualcomm that have allowed evacuees a moderate level of convenience. For example, there is power, bathroom facilities, plenty of food and water, etc. There is even entertainment for children that I have observed in media reports. FEMA has approximately 150 persons (and increasing) to assist disaster victims with registering for federal assistance if they are determined to be eligible. We have Mobile Disaster Registration Centers en route which should be operational by tomorrow. In the interim people can call 1 800 621 FEMA to register, or via the web at www.fema.gov.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Are there future plans on improving California's county fire departments to deal with these kind of emergencies? Given the fact that people are still planning to live in high-risk areas.

Pat Philbin: This is a state responsibility; however, FEMA does administer grants that encourage increased levels of preparedness and capabilities.

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washingtonpost.com: FEMA

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Washington, D.C.: Who can get FEMA aid? Anyone affected? And what do you think will happen to those who have lost their homes? Will FEMA or other government agency provide enough money to rebuild?

Pat Philbin: Individuals who have adequate insurance do not qualify for federal assistance because we cannot duplicate benefits. The maximum assistance FEMA can provide under Individual Assistance is $28,200.00--and this is only permitted following a Presidential Declaration. FEMA does not make you whole--it is designed to get victims back on their feet.

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Washington, D.C.: Have any federal offices been closed because of the fires, and have those employees been relocated to work elsewhere? Thanks.

Pat Philbin: Some have in the affected areas--however, I do not have specifics. The Office of Personnel Management may know.

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washingtonpost.com: U.S. Office of Personnel Management

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20005: Hello. I can't help but notice the vastly different conditions at shelters for fire evacuees as compared to the circumstances that evacuees had to cope with in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Why is this?

Pat Philbin: There are a number of significant differences between these events. First, we are collectively much better prepared from the federal level down to the state and local. FEMA has improved our communication and coordination, our logistics, and our our planning efforts. We have seasoned veterans leading the agency working closely with state and local officials. We are working much closer with volunteer agenies. And second, the disaster situation is much different. Power is available and we have adequate resources flowing into the affected areas.

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Tennessee: Has FEMA's Web site improved since Katrina? After that we heard about all sorts of problems and people only being able to use certain browsers to access Web pages related to getting relief. What has changed since then?

Pat Philbin: We are revamping our web site and simplifying it with a focus on a one-stop shop for disaster victims and emergency management personnel.

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washingtonpost.com: FEMA

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Washington, D.C.: With the current devastation in California with the wildfires and the "quick" response to the residents. I'm wondering what have been the latest "quick" responses to those who were affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, who STILL have no place to call home, displaced, still have devastation, and received little to no help from government officials? What are you doing to help them?

Pat Philbin: Our focus in the current situation is on saving lives and property. Individuals appear to be heeding evacuation orders by their elected officials.

The economic situation for those along the affected areas of the Gulf Coast are making our collective efforts more difficult; however, we will continue to work with state and local officials in assisting their communities rebuild and individuals reestablish some sense of normalcy.

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Durham, N.C.: How do you counter the perception that FEMA is getting its act together for California because it has a Republican governor?

As a casual observer I see a mostly white population getting the best service while a region with more people of color (New Orleans), gets far less. What can FEMA do to change this?

Also, the people who chose to live in a potential tinderbox seem to be getting far less criticism than the people of New Orleans for living below sea level.

Pat Philbin: I absolutely reject this criticism regarding party affiliation or race. Disasters don't discriminate and, based on my experience at FEMA, our people are all focused on helping disaster victims. You might be surprised to learn that FEMA is smaller than many high schools--about 2400 people. We rely on many others in the system to support federal response and disaster assistance operations. We all play a part in looking out for each other and understanding (and preparing for) the risks.

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Seattle, Wash.: I have relatives who are busy helping relocate refugees and rebuild after the fires -- I heard that only 10 percent of our normal fire-fighting equipment and personnel are in-country and the rest is over in Iraq -- is it true that our president is endangering millions of American citizens by sending their fire-fighting equipment and National Guard overseas and weakening our country?

Pat Philbin: We know of no shortages. We have states that can provide assistance to others through a process we call EMAC.

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Pat Philbin: I regret that my schedule requires me from signing off. Thank you for your questions and I hope that you found my responses satisfactory. The "New" FEMA is working extraordinarily hard to reestablish your trust and confidence in us. We welcome your comments and feedback.

Best regards,

Pat Philbin

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