HOUSTON — Hurricane Katrina made them worthless feds in windbreakers, a four-letter agency for which some couldn't find enough four-letter words. And in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, FEMA is again the easy target for displaced residents and frustrated local authorities.
"Where's FEMA?" some evacuees have asked. Houston Mayor Bill White complained FEMA wasn't bringing ice, water and meals fast enough, while the county administrator personally took over the coordination of efforts to hand out relief supplies.
But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is quick to defend the agency he started reforming after its bungled response to Hurricane Katrina. He knows full well that it's far too easy to shout "It's FEMA's fault!" whenever anything goes wrong on the ground.
"People have worked their hearts out," he said Wednesday in Houston, his second trip to the city since Ike hit. "I recognize that in any walk of life perfection is not always realistic, so I get frustrated, too, and I've raised my voice a few times. I'm acutely aware of the fact that people are hot and hungry and thirsty."
Hot, hungry and thirsty victims
For days, hot, hungry and thirsty victims of Ike's strike have waited hours for handouts and scrounged for fuel. Phone lines were overburdened as evacuees tried, unsuccessfully, to register for help. Others denounced the suggestion to go to a Web site, impossible when they still had no power.
"They're still screwed up. They haven't remedied their problem," said Galveston nurse Reginald Cleveland, one of thousands of evacuees stuck at a shelter in San Antonio. He signed up with FEMA when he checked into the shelter, but then was told to call a number at which no one answered. "I say, put the people out. They obviously don't know what they're doing."
Three years ago, Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and FEMA arrived both late and unprepared. The agency couldn't track supplies or get those it had to the right place. Chertoff and other top federal officials did not have enough accurate or timely information, particularly about the inhumane conditions among those taking shelter at a jam-packed Superdome and convention center.
FEMA's other meaning
President Bush's compliment to FEMA Director Michael D. Brown — "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job!" — became a dark joke. Among the many T-shirts available in post-Katrina New Orleans was one that read, FEMA: Fast Efficient My A--.
FEMA got its first major test since Katrina in June, when floodwaters pounded several Midwestern states, and then again when Hurricane Gustav hit southern Louisiana earlier this month. In both cases, FEMA earned mostly positive reviews.
FEMA-dispatched supplies began arriving in Houston two days after Ike struck. On Tuesday, three days post-storm, the agency announced a 30-day transitional shelter program, arranging for hotel and motel chains to house evacuees and for those facilities to direct-bill the government for 100 percent of costs.
On Wednesday, Chertoff toured disaster areas with White and Ed Emmett, the top administrator of Harris County. At one supply distribution center at a Baptist church, Chertoff leaned into a car window and smiled as he met with Ike victims.
"The weather has gotten good," Chertoff joked under a sunny sky. "I wish I could take credit for that."
A little boy peered at the gathering crowd and wondered what the commotion was about. When someone told him, he said he wanted to tell Chertoff what he needed most: "I need a go-cart. That's what I need," the boy named Brandon said before leaving.
200 trucks sat waiting
The congenial atmosphere was a drastic change from a day earlier, when the mayor drove past a distribution center with no supplies and long lines of frustrated residents. White immediately made an angry call to Emmett, who was driving back from meeting with President Bush.
Emmett wound up camped out at the main supply distribution center, where communication problems had left about 200 loaded trucks sitting idly in the parking lot when they were supposed to be delivering goods. Some sites reportedly had ice and water, but no meals; others had water and meals, but no ice.
Emmett said he set up a folding table, pulled out a legal pad and a pen and started making fixes by hand.
"We had a good operation once it finally got started," Emmett said. "It was easy to take care of. It just took some doing."
FEMA didn't have a hand in all the supply problems. The state shut down Houston's major supply staging area at midnight on Monday, causing some of the backups getting supplies to evacuees Monday and Tuesday, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe coordination, or lack of it, between state, local and federal officials.
But on Wednesday, all trucks left the main center at 6:15 a.m., and the roughly two dozen distribution centers around the city all received two trucks of ice, two trucks of water and one truck of meals. Everyone seemed to agree that things were moving more smoothly.
"We weren't pulling people off rooftops. Fatalities were held to a minimum," Emmett said. "People evacuated fairly soon. FEMA came in and started providing assistance. So I would just ask for everyone to maintain a certain perspective."
While the struggles in handing out relief supplies had eased, other glitches remained.
At the evacuee shelter in San Antonio, Carlos Simon, of Hitchcock, near Galveston, said he was told to wait until the middle of the night — when the phone lines would be less busy — to call FEMA to register for aid. He stayed until about 4 a.m. on Wednesday to make his registration call. Other attempts were plagued by frustrating disconnections.
The 46-year-old who walks with a cane wanted to know whether he could go to a hotel. But nice as the woman on the other end of the phone was, all he could get was a registration number, Simon said.
"I really don't know what to expect or anything," he said, leaning against a wheelchair ramp with a blanket draped over his shoulders.
As he has since the days after Katrina, Chertoff vowed to fix such problems. And he promised that those who do screw up will feel it. "Those whose butts need to be kicked will feel it in their butts."
View FEMA's list of hotels it has contracted with to take in evacuees: www.femaevachotels.com
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