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The Feds Came Early For This Hurricane

While Andrew was still huffing, FEMA was bringing relief

CHASTISED for moving too slowly following Hurricane Hugo, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is not letting the ground dry under its feet this time.

"There was a lot of criticism," says Billy Penn, a spokesman for FEMA Region VI, which includes Louisiana. "We learned some lessons." As Roy Smith of FEMA puts it: "Cut the red tape and let's bring the assistance to the people."

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With 2,700 employees and an annual budget of $860 million, FEMA is the lead agency for helping calamity-struck counties rebuild infrastructure and assisting residents in rebuilding homes. The assistance dollars come from a disaster fund appropriated by Congress.

Before 1989 dished up Hugo, Mr. Penn says, FEMA waited until the wind stopped howling to deploy the personnel that assess the damage, arrange temporary housing, and evaluate applications for grants and low-interest loans.

Mr. Smith points out that FEMA doesn't want to displace victims to house its own - and Hugo was so devastating that its staff could find nowhere to stay. "The people we sent were lucky to have a cot and a bath every seven days," he says.

However, Penn admits, "as a result, people did hurt" over assistance delays. So, even before Hurricane Andrew bellyflopped onto Florida and elbowed Louisiana this week, FEMA pre-deployed personnel into the potential disaster zones, albeit at the risk of wasting taxpayer money if the hurricane had gone elsewhere, he says.

While Andrew was still churning in the Gulf of Mexico, Smith moved from FEMA Region VI's Denton, Texas, headquarters into an office at the state Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) in Baton Rouge.

OEP operates as Louisiana's disaster response command center. (Embarrassingly, it lost all power for 45 minutes during the height of the hurricane when a generator overheated, leaving the Operations Room pitch black.) OEP is also responsible for requesting emergency money from FEMA.

Within hours of Hurricane Andrew's landfall early Wednesday morning, OEP staff working with Mr. Smith had drafted a request for disaster relief funds for Terrebonne Parish.

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Smith faxed the document to FEMA staff in Washington, who hand carried it to the White House and awakened the President for signing.

Thus, well before dawn and hours before the Louisiana coast was clear of rising water and raging winds, evacuees huddled in Red Cross shelters heard the federal disaster aid announced over their AM radios.

THE expedited request could be labeled as a midnight oil publicity move in an election year. But FEMA expects other recent action to improve the speed of disaster relief work. Last April the agency signed a response plan with 28 other federal agencies that for the first time defines the role of each in advance of a disaster. This will prevent the initial "discombobulation" the agencies evinced after the 1989 hurricane, Smith says.

FEMA is looking for an office building in Baton Rouge to serve as a temporary disaster field office, where it will station up to 200 people. Other agencies may swell the federal presence.

Meanwhile, life returned to normal for much of Louisiana as early as Wednesday night. Restaurants reopened. Power was steadily restored to blacked-out neighborhoods. And most schools and businesses announced that they would reopen Thursday.

But coastal communities like New Iberia, Jeanerette, Franklin, and Patterson were devastated, as President Bush saw during a quick car tour Wednesday.

Bush's motorcade passed toppled billboards, snapped light poles, sagging high-voltage wires, and roofless hotels. He jumped out to talk to David and Lynn Cavalier, a young couple who had been examining fallen pine boughs in their front yard.

After the motorcade moved on, Mr. Cavalier commented that Bush's visit "shows concern" and "even means something in this political season." However, he and his wife, "true-blue Democrats," still intend to vote for Gov. Clinton for president in November.

Later Bush visited the Cajundome, a sports stadium in Lafayette, which housed hundreds of evacuees. One, Lester Ray, came from Franklin, "the area that got totally messed up."

Mr. Ray, who didn't know when the floodwaters would recede and allow him to return home, said that Bush was "doing a good thing" by visiting the storm's victims.

If the president helped the people who had lost everything, "that would be enough for me."

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