New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Oct 30, 2012
WASHINGTON » As Hurricane Sandy approached landfall Monday, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials here were struggling with the question of how to deploy resources in the face of a powerful, far-reaching storm that was bearing down on a string of the nation's largest metropolitan areas.
Based on forecasts and calculations, the officials decided to focus their resources on southern New Jersey, where they had hundreds of thousands of ready-to-eat meals and bottles of water and hundreds of staff members prepared to respond.
In Lakehurst, N.J., in the center of the state, in collaboration with the Defense Department, the agency had created an "incident support base," where it had blankets, cots, diapers and generators, along with the meals and water. A similar center was set up at a military base in Chicopee, Mass., near Springfield.
Other federal departments, like Health and Human Services, stood by to help evacuate nursing homes and hospitals. The department also sent a 50-person medical team to New Jersey to provide backup if hospitals were overwhelmed. And the American Red Cross had hundreds of workers who have set up shelters.
In a news release Monday night, FEMA provided its most comprehensive information about the response, saying that several search and rescue teams had been deployed to the Mid-Atlantic and that inspectors had been placed at all nuclear power plants that could be affected by the storm. The agency said that 139 ambulances had been positioned in New York and 211 more would soon be sent there.
FEMA, with the authorization of President Barack Obama, had as of Monday afternoon declared a disaster in eight states and the District of Columbia, allowing them to begin to request assistance before the worst of the storm hit.
Craig Fugate, the FEMA administrator, said the real challenge was waiting to see where the storm hit the hardest and which communities needed help.
FEMA has not seen a test on the scale of Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, when delays in delivering emergency relief, failures in its communications system and problems with the emergency housing program combined to produce widespread criticism.
Since then it has tried to strengthen its ability to respond to a major disaster, both by rebuilding its own supply management system and personnel, and by fostering stronger ties to outside parties, including the Defense Department and even the owners of big-box retail stores, which Fugate said might be turned to as a backup for emergency supplies.
But FEMA still has some weaknesses — which could be exposed during this storm — including insufficient management of its disaster assistance employee program, according to an audit released this year by the Government Accountability Office, which found inconsistencies in how it hires and trains staff.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said Monday in an interview that FEMA has more experienced leadership — for example, Fugate once led Florida's emergency management agency — and it is doing a better job coordinating its response with local and state governments than in the past.
"I am optimistic that FEMA has been given the tools and leadership it needs to meet this challenge," said Collins, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. "It does not mean the response will be perfect. But FEMA is far better prepared and far better led than years ago."
Coordinated warnings from elected state and local officials — in many cases ordering mandatory evacuations — could minimize the extent of the disaster.
"The American people take the warnings far more seriously now," Collins said. "They have seen the loss of life and the tremendous destruction a hurricane can bring about."