FEMA's focus: Getting 'ahead of the storm'

Wednesday - 8/31/2011, 8:56am EDT

Tim Manning, deputy administrator, FEMA

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By Jack Moore
Federal News Radio

In the wake of a rare East Coast earthquake, a hurricane that ravaged the coast and the upcoming observance of the 10 years since the 9/11 terror attacks, the concept of disaster preparedness has rarely been as timely.

Sept. 1 kicks off National Preparedness Month, which is sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. While the theme this year is reflective of the past ("A Time to Remember"), FEMA Deputy Administrator Tim Manning said the broader focus is on preparing for tomorrow's disasters.

"It's always time to prepare for the next emergency," he told Federal News Radio. "There are simple things that everybody can do to make themselves (and) their families more resilient to any potential emergency."

Before the storm

Preparing for future challenges has not always been a call FEMA heeded.

There were bumps in the road when the once independent agency was brought under the umbrella of the Homeland Security Department in 2003.

Another watershed moment in the life of the agency was Hurricane Katrina. FEMA was marked by a black eye for what many saw as poor performance in the wake of the disaster. There were hearings — on Capitol Hill and in the court of public opinion.

In the storm's aftermath, Congress passed the Post-Katrina Emergency Reform Act, "which strengthened the agency, gave new clarification to the roles and authorities and allows us to work much closer with out partners at state and local governments," Manning said, "to get out ahead of a storm — to get out ahead of emergencies — and really be there to be proactive and ready to respond."

Manning it's not only FEMA that has evolved, "The entire emergency management response community across the country is a very, very different organization than it was 10 years ago.

Much of the controversy surrounding Katrina dealt with the public expectation that the agency would step in as a first responder, while the agency, by nearly all accounts, was unprepared for that.

Manning said the crux of FEMA's role today is not so much what it's able to do, but when.

"I would describe FEMA, primarily as a first supporter. Our job is to support our partners in the field doing the response and saving lives and support the governors and the mayors in their mission to protect their citizens. And that hasn't changed. What has changed is our ability move before a storm makes landfall to move in the early hours, to pre-position, to get our supplies and our equipment and our support closer to the people who need it."

FEMA funding confusion

Earlier this week, the agency announced it would begin "immediate needs" funding. The agency's disaster relief fund, officials said, was only $900 million shy from being depleted.

Manning acknowledged "quite a bit of confusion" about the agency's funding. "I assure you that FEMA is not short on funds to provide protection of the American people in disasters," he stressed, "and that goes for what's continuing to go on in Joplin, (Mo.) and throughout Alabama and all of our recent disasters. We have the funds necessary to provide that assistance."

He said FEMA is focusing providing assistance for disaster survivors and "ongoing projects," which includes not only Irene but also previous disasters.

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