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FEMA Director updates Rita on Wilma's wrath

Paulison talks with 'Live and Direct' host about how Florida fared in storm
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The federal government has been front row and center as emergency crews got ready for Wilma's wrath, this after taking much criticism for a delayed response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. 

On Monday night, after Wilma raged through Florida, Acting FEMA Director R. David Paulison joined MSNBC's Rita Cosby on 'Live and Direct' to explain how recovery efforts were going in South Florida.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

RITA COSBY: Director Paulison, first of all, I'm sure you're just so busy.  In fact, we appreciate you being with us.  What are your priorities tonight?

R. DAVID PAULISON, ACTING FEMA DIRECTOR:  Well, priorities, obviously, our number one is life safety.  We have urban search and rescue teams on the ground with the state of Florida urban search and rescue teams.  And we're searching all of those hard-hit areas in Collier County and western Broward and into Key West and the Marathon areas, like that.

COSBY:  Yes, what about the extent of the damage?  What's the reading that you're getting, Director?

PAULISON:  The damage is pretty significant.  It's across the entire state.  The mobile homes were hit very hard in that impact area.  A lot of roof damage.  A tremendous amount of trees down.  Pretty much from I-4 south, a lot of power outages, probably 3.5 million people without power.  So it took a pretty good swathe right across the southern part of the state.

COSBY:  You know, you talk about a big swathe.  I would imagine there's a lot of work for FEMA.  Where are the crews right now?  How many crews do you have out?

PAULISON:  We have crews all over the southern part of the state.  We're in partnership with the state of Florida.  And by the way, the state is just doing an outstanding job of organizing this whole response.  Governor Bush and Craig Fugate, the emergency manager, are fortunately very experienced in this, and they do a very good job, so it makes it easier for us.

We have urban search and rescue crews down there, like I said.  We have medical teams in Key West and in Marathon.  And we have literally hundreds of tractor-trailer loads of d and water and ice moving into the southern part of the state right now.

COSBY:  Did you get a sense of this time (that) everybody was so well prepared?  We had a lot of warning, of course, that this one was coming.

PAULISON:  Yes, we had a lot of warning, and it gave people time to get prepared.

COSBY:  ... You're a native of Miami?

PAULISON:  Born and raised there, yes.

COSBY:  I know.  And you spent a lot of time there ... with the fire department. I want to get your thoughts just personally, when you see the damage coming into your state, it's got to be even more upsetting.  It hits close to home, I would imagine.

PAULISON:  Well, my home is down there.  I still have a home in Davie, which is just west of Fort Lauderdale, and my wife is down there by herself with my daughter, Beth.  And so,  they're dealing with that all by themselves, and I'm not home.  So we have our screen enclosures down around the pool.  I've lost all the trees.  So it gets very personal.  You know, when you go through that -- we went through Hurricane Andrew with our home down there.  And when you deal with those types of things, you understand and you can sympathize and empathize with people who've lost everything.

COSBY:  Oh, you bet.  And especially when you see neighbors and friends.  You know, you're a career firefighter.  I know a lot of folks in Miami, they love you ...  How did your background prepare you for this job now, being acting director of FEMA?

PAULISON:  I think coming up in the fire and emergency management system, dealing with hurricanes, dealing with disasters and understanding what happens on the ground and what needs to happen on the ground helps me make better decisions here and helps us focus our employees to do the right thing and help focus on the person on the ground and not necessarily on ourselves.

COSBY:  As we look at the way things were handled with Katrina and the devastation across the state, what is the difference in the way you think that FEMA handled things this time, versus last time?

PAULISON:  I haven't had an opportunity to really go back and look at Katrina yet. ... We've had four storms now since I've been here in only a few weeks.  But one of the things we did notice is there was not a good situation awareness in Louisiana.  And we have that now.

We make sure that we have people at the state emergency management office.  We have people in the major cities across the state.  I have people in the Hurricane Center.  We partnered with the state of Florida, and we just pretty much walked hand in hand through everything.  And that helps us understand what the needs are and where we can deliver supplies and resources and where they're needed and where the state needs them.

Watch 'Rita Cosby Live & Direct' each night at 9 p.m. ET on MSNBC.