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If disaster reigns, FEMA holds the 'umbrella'

He's in charge of a federal agency with a billion-dollar budget, and he reports to the President and to presidential counselor Edwin Meese. But it's difficult to describe just what it is he does.

In a sense, you could say he doesn't do anything - but that's not fair. As head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Louis O. Giuffrida has the enormous task of preparing for what he hopes he'll never have to do: deal with the consequences of disasters, from chlorine leaks and hurricanes to terrorist attacks and nuclear war.

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Created in 1979, FEMA is an umbrella organization carved out of the merger of federal civil defense and flood management programs, the Small Business Assistance Administration, and other agencies. It's a bureaucratic network that could make a federalist blanch.

But Giuffrida doesn't bat an eye in justifying the hefty organization at a time when other agencies are being eliminated. That's because his vision for FEMA is in the true federalist spirit: a lean organization, a guiding but not strangling hand to states or communities, a coordinator of human and financial resources - but not a substitute for well-trained local response to crises.

''The essential element here is unity of command,'' he says in a pensive, general-like way, ''so that we don't have various segments of government jumping off in opposite directions.''

Giuffrida actually is a brigadier general in the California National Guard, and he attained the rank of colonel in the regular Army. He has the reassuring visage of the calm helmsman - the kind of guy you'd want to be in charge if the ground began to shake and buckle around you, or the nuclear spitballs begin to fly.

Still wondering what FEMA does? Perhaps the young agency is best described in terms of what it doesn't do.

If, for example, someone left a ticking briefcase on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, the authorities' first response would be to keep the device from exploding. ''That's not FEMA's job. That would be the New York City Police Department, the FBI, and everybody else. . . . FEMA has no desire to investigate acts of terrorism, or to negotiate for hostages, or to track terrorists, or to round up a SWAT team,'' General Giuffrida says.

But if the suitcase contained a ton of high explosives that could flatten out most of Wall Street, ''it would be our job to make sure that we had standing by the ambulances, doctors, food - and translators, because that's a polylingual area,'' he explains.

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In a hijacking, a bomb threat, or other terrorist acts, FEMA would presumably be the one agency that would know what was going on - who to call, what services were needed, how to coordinate state and local police and emergency teams with other specialized squads. In part, FEMA is a sort of clean-up crew which ''manages the consequences'' of emergencies.

The umbrella agency's most visible activities have been associated with weather-related disasters such as hurricanes and floods, and geological phenomena such as earthquakes and the Mt. St. Helens eruptions. No small task - coordinating the alphabet soup of federal, state, and local agencies which get involved when large numbers of people, crops, or businesses are threatened by disasters.

FEMA does the groundwork to help the president decide when to declare a federal disaster area. The chief executive's decision is based largely on FEMA's recommendations. President Carter was criticized for his ''liberal'' usage of the Federal Disaster Relief Act in declaring Miami a disaster area during the influx of Cuban refugees in 1980.

President Reagan has declared 15 federal disasters this year - mostly harsh storms, tornados, and floods. But the event that got the most attention was his decision to deny federal disaster relief to the state of California in its battle with the Mediterranean fruit fly. A FEMA spokesman says it was felt that the state had the resources to meet the crisis on its own.

General Giuffrida is more than familiar with California's crisis management resources. As the creator of California Specialized Training Institute (CSTI) in 1971, he developed programs that were the microcosm of what FEMA now does.

''At that time in our national history, we'd had a whole series of massive civil disorders,'' he says. ''One of the things that came out of that unhappy national experience was a realization that a community that faces a massive civil emergency . . . doesn't normally have in its own closet all of the assets that it needs to restore as quickly as possible the normal process of government.''

So at CSTI he created a mythical city and county named Santa Louisa (after his then 11-year-old daughter) in which disaster scenarios were enacted and resolved. The institute's ''students'' came from agencies that don't normally work together but which would be required to do so under high stress circumstances - law enforcement groups, fire services, schools and colleges, the Red Cross, and private sector organizations.

General Giuffrida says his aim was to develop a ''common vocabulary'' - to have dialogue, not a jumble of soliloquies at a time when good communications are imperative.

One of the ways they went about this was to examine all the emergencies the US had experienced over the past 50 years. Eleven years and 28,000 graduates later CSTI training courses cover floods, earthquakes, terrorism, hazardous materials, and crime in schools - essentially FEMA's menu. The job of top dog at FEMA was almost tailor-made for General Giuffrida.

In crowded Washington, where clout is measured by how many square feet of real estate an agency covers, FEMA recently gathered its scattered forces from 14 locations throughout the city into a brand new eight-story building near the Smithsonian Institution. In fact, it bumped out another agency which was scheduled to move in - one small indication of FEMA's importance to the Reagan administration.

The new building has a new official seal, designed by General Giuffrida himself. The motto, ''Service in Peace and War,'' stems from General Giuffrida's desire to be understood as more than a flood-control agency or as a paranoid harbinger of World War III. Aside from its functions related to natural disasters, FEMA is a bridge between national defense and the people being defended - ensuring ''a balance between what we need on the defense side, and the rest of the nation and economy . . . without which the Defense Department would be essentially meaningless.''

FEMA employees made an office joke out of one magazine article that described the agency as a ''shadow government.'' Nothing so sinister, as far as General Giuffrida is concerned. ''We're not doomsday prophets,'' he emphasizes. But it would be imprudent not to recognize the possibility for the occurrence of nuclear war and other crises, ''and it's our responsibility both legally and morally to have done as much pre-planning as we can do.''

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