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Criticized in Recent Disasters, FEMA Has Good Start on Floods


WASHINGTON — The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has begun a reorganization spurred by criticism of its performance in recent years, so far appears to be meeting the challenge of the massive Midwestern floods.

Working with state officials, FEMA has opened about 20 disaster field offices throughout the stricken states of Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. It is conducting damage assessments and getting ready for an onslaught of federal assistance and loan applications when the flooding abates.

"They're doing a pretty good job so far, but the real test will come when the waters recede," one congressional critic said. "That's when the long lines of applicants start and the heavy paperwork begins."

Condemned for its performance after major disasters in recent years, including Hurricanes Andrew and Hugo, the northern California earthquake and the Los Angeles rioting, FEMA was given an aggressive new director by the incoming Clinton Administration--James Lee Witt, a former director of emergency services in Arkansas.

"I can assure you FEMA will not be doing business as usual," Witt said after taking office last spring. "The people of this nation cannot afford it. I am committed to making FEMA one of the most respected agencies in this nation."

A relative youngster among federal agencies, FEMA was created by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 to provide emergency disaster assistance and to plan and carry out civil defense in the event of nuclear attack. Its performance has seldom met expectations except for minor disasters affecting small communities.

Before FEMA's creation, military units, particularly the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Guard, were pressed into service after most disasters.

FEMA officials, called onto the carpet by Congress in recent years, conceded there was a slow response to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Hugo in September, 1989, and the California earthquake a month later. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), whose state was especially hard-hit by Hugo, said FEMA's leaders acted like "a bunch of bureaucratic jackasses."

In addition, the House Appropriations Committee branded FEMA last year "a political dumping ground" that it said was filled by the George Bush Administration with inexperienced appointees who mismanaged the agency.

FEMA's reputation hit such a low point last year that some critics called for abolition of the $800-million-a-year, 2,400-person agency. But the new Administration's promise to revamp the troubled agency has somewhat defused the move to wipe it out altogether.

Witt says he envisions a "partnership" arrangement with Congress, the states and other federal agencies. States, he said, must represent the first line of assistance in the early hours of any disaster, but they also must have an immediate channel to emergency federal aid through FEMA.

That has proven to be FEMA's game plan following the floods, although, as a congressional critic noted, the flooding is not the sudden mega-disaster "that overwhelms a state or a region like a Hugo or Andrew, and FEMA had some advance notice of it. So the real test of a new FEMA has not yet come."

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