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Disaster in the Making 

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's diminished capacity to handle natural disasters is especially worrisome to Louisiana.

Last month, an Associated Press poll showed that Americans were as concerned about being attacked by terrorists as they were about getting burglarized or losing their jobs. With such fears running high, it's natural that the Bush Administration, particularly in an election year, would want to put anti-terrorism efforts at the forefront. But few people, especially in a hurricane-prone state like Louisiana, should agree that anti-terrorism programs must compete for federal money with natural-disaster recovery and prevention efforts. Make no mistake: Natural disasters will occur. Just ask our neighbors in Florida.

Last week's cover story "A Disaster Waiting to Happen" focused on changes that have occurred under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after it was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. FEMA insiders and emergency-management officials nationwide say the move spelled disaster for FEMA and for victims of catastrophic events. From 1993 until 2002, FEMA built a reputation as an effective, independent federal agency that responded to emergencies efficiently and made disaster mitigation a priority. But some FEMA employees and many who work closely with the agency say that when it became a subdivision of the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA's ability to handle natural disasters fell off significantly. Now, it must compete against anti-terrorism efforts for funding.

"Before FEMA was condensed into Homeland Security Š it responded much more quickly," says Walter Maestri, director of Jefferson Parish's Office of Emergency Management. Maestri has worked with FEMA for eight years. "Truthfully, you had access to the individuals who were the decision-makers. The FEMA administrator had Cabinet status. Now, you have another layer of bureaucracy. FEMA is headed by an assistant secretary who now has to compete with other assistant secretaries of Homeland Security for available funds. And elevating houses is not as sexy as providing gas masks."

Maestri is still awaiting word from FEMA officials as to why Louisiana, despite being called the "floodplain of the nation" in a 2002 FEMA report, received no disaster mitigation grant money from FEMA in 2003 ("Homeland Insecurity," Sept. 28). Maestri says the rejection left emergency officials around the state "flabbergasted."

We're equally flabbergasted. The main criterion of FEMA's Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant program is to repair "repetitive loss structures," those that have been damaged repeatedly by floods. State officials say Louisiana has an abnormally high concentration of repetitive loss structures, with Jefferson Parish containing more than any other parish or county in the nation. "Repetitive loss structures were the number one priority, and we have more than anybody else in the country, and we got nothing," Maestri says.

In June, Maestri fired off an angry letter to FEMA, asking why Louisiana was excluded from the nearly $60 million available in grant money. Noting that Texas has fewer repetitive loss structures than Louisiana but received the most money from the program (nearly $9 million), Maestri says, "Perhaps it has something to do with the president being from Texas. Fine, let the president take care of Texas. But let Louisiana have a little something."

His office is still awaiting a response from FEMA, a delay that Maestri says has become typical. Poor communication, he says, is one sign of FEMA's diminished performance. FEMA did not respond to Gambit Weekly's request for information, either.

Another troubling sign is the agency's lagging responses to natural disasters. Maestri recalls that in 2001, after Tropical Storm Allison, "we got quick response" from FEMA. Then, in 2002 after Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili, "response time was much slower," he says. "There was a delay in funding; projects that had already been approved had their funding put on hold and we had to wait. Homeland Security had grabbed the money."

FEMA's diminished capacity to respond to natural disasters, and to thwart preventable damage from a major catastrophe, is especially worrisome to Louisiana. Areas of Louisiana once received hundreds of thousands of dollars from "Project Impact," FEMA's largest disaster-prevention program, until the Bush Administration eliminated it in 2001. It gets worse: Not only did FEMA reject all disaster-mitigation grant applications from Louisiana for 2003, but the state might not get any funding in 2004. Maestri says that as of Sept. 28, FEMA hadn't notified his office that any grant money was available for fiscal year 2004, which ended Sept. 30.

Currently, Maestri's office is contesting a proposal in Washington to remove some hazard-mitigation funding from the FEMA-friendly Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act and place it under the Homeland Security Act. "We don't think mitigation for natural disasters should compete with the necessities of first respondents," Maestri says. "They're two separate kinds of needs, and certainly priority goes to the first respondent." Louisiana's entire congressional delegation should unite to fight such a proposal. The federal government must restore FEMA's ability to respond to natural disasters and mitigate the effects of future catastrophes. As vulnerable as we are to hurricanes and floods, Louisiana cannot afford to be tossed about on political seas when real storms loom on the horizon.

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