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After this flood, FEMA earns praise

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There's been a much greater effort to coordinate with state and local governments, he adds, and ensure that FEMA's response is appropriate. When Cedar Rapids recently requested several hundred mobile homes, FEMA first checked in with the state government. It also listened to the city's request to lease areas in existing mobile-home parks, rather than setting up the sort of group sites that were so criticized after Katrina.

The agency also pushed to get the necessary disaster declarations out faster and to conduct housing inspections and issue federal payments more quickly.

Long-term recovery – involving more regulations and red tape – can be slower and more frustrating, Johnson acknowledges. But there's a huge effort being made to do things differently, he says. "We have a sense of needing to improve ourselves, and to show people that the new FEMA is more than just a bumper sticker," he says.

High marks for local agencies

While FEMA is getting much of the scrutiny, many of the most important initial responders were state and local groups. And for the most part, they've also received high marks for quick, clear communication with residents, and for efforts that in some cases allowed key public works to be saved or gave people time to remove their possessions.

"I don't think they could have done a better job," says Joleen Gerst, whose farm in Oakville, Iowa, flooded when the levee there was overtopped. In the days leading up to the flood, she received daily "code red" calls updating her on the situation, she says. Volunteers from all over the country helped her and other Oakville residents evacuate, and over 1,000 sandbaggers were used to shore up the levee.

Since the flood, she says she and her husband have already received assistance from FEMA and were told they could apply for temporary housing and even have it located at their farm if they liked.

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