FEMA Head Works to Restore Agency's Image

By: AP
By: AP

David Paulison was having trouble with the little things - an agency phone number, remembering what day it was.

But it's the big things Paulison was focusing on Sunday as preparations and planning for Hurricane Gustav's assault on the Gulf Coast reached a frantic pace as the storm sped closer to shore. As head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, it's his job to coordinate a massive federal mobilization of relief, recovery and rescue before the storm strikes.

And it's his job to prove to the country that this is not the FEMA that floundered and failed when Katrina was the catastrophe on everyone's mind three years ago. Paulison, who earned his reputation in handling disasters as Miami-Dade County's fire chief during Hurricane Andrew, took over the agency in the wake of the meltdown of the government's response to Katrina.

Those days, and that FEMA, are gone, Paulison and others insist. This past week will prove it, and hurricane victims will see it in the agency's efforts to help prepare for the worst, Paulison said.

So forgive him if his recent around-the-clock work schedule has dulled his brain a bit on some of the minor points made in Sunday's afternoon news conference. Paulison says he is concentrating more on the work under way by federal, state and local officials handling evacuations, and positioning relief and rescue supplies.

Early Sunday, he gathered four governors from Gulf Coast states on a conference call. As they waited for President Bush to join the conversation, the governors spent the minutes finding out what each state needed, Paulison said.

"When we got in there, they were all talking to each other about how they could help each other," he said.

Another example of improvements in Paulison's FEMA came late Saturday night when federal and state officials realized that several New Orleans hospitals and nursing homes made a last-minute decision to evacuate their ill and frail patients. The nursing homes didn't have a plan, Paulison said.

Military airlifts were set up, extra planes located, and the problem was solved, he said. "Everybody was there to resolve the issue," said Paulison, citing cooperation among federal and state leaders.

Louisiana and New Orleans officials stepped in to solve another problem, and FEMA helped there too, Paulison said. After a contractor delivered only 150 to 200 of the 700 buses planned for evacuations, local officials found school buses to cover the gap and FEMA sent some buses in as well, he said.

That's a sharp contrast to the days after Katrina when federal, state and local officials ended up blaming each other for failures with evacuations and planning. Instead, Paulison praised state and local leaders, and called the bus shortfall a brief "bump in the road."

"Anytime you have a disaster like this, there are going to be glitches," he said. "Things are going to go wrong. Things aren't going to go as planned. It's how you resolve those that determines the outcome."

Paulison, 61, began his career as a firefighter in 1971 with the North Miami Beach Fire Department, which was absorbed by the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department. Besides his work on Hurricane Andrew, Paulison also led the department through the 1996 crash of ValuJet Flight 592 in the Florida Everglades.

A certified paramedic, Paulison moved to Washington in late 2001. After FEMA became part of the Homeland Security Department in 2003, he led FEMA's emergency preparedness force.

Paulison said earlier this year he plans to retire as FEMA's director after the hurricane season. But that seemed like an eternity away Sunday as he juggled presidential briefings, conference calls with state and local officials, media interviews and a news conference.

"I'm trying to remember what day I'm in now," he told reporters during an afternoon briefing.

Paulison is banking on the fact that changes he's made at FEMA, and lessons learned from Katrina's mistakes, will help begin restoring the agency's reputation. After offering reporters a list of steps taken to prepare the storm's pounding, Paulison said he believes FEMA has done its job this time.

"I told you before, that we were going to be ready for this storm," he said. "I think we are showing that we are ready for this storm. I can't stop the damage from happening, and we can't stop the storm from coming in. What we can do is be as ready as possible, making sure we're ready, the states are ready, and the local communities are ready."

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