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Facing heat for 2017, FEMA ramps up hurricane preparation for Florence

Raffi Hovsepian, a critical care paramedic with All County Ambulance, plugs in earbuds and tries to relax Friday morning, Sept. 14, 2018, in an old Kmart in Garner used as a makeshift shelter for first responders traveling to the state from other areas to wait for assignments to help with Hurricane Florence. Hovsepian travelled with a crew of four men from Ft. Pierce, Fla.

JULI LEONARD/THE NEWS & OBSERVER/TNS

By BEN WIEDER | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: September 15, 2018

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — With questions still swirling about its response last year to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the Trump administration doesn't appear to have taken any chances in its preparations for Hurricane Florence, which made landfall early Friday morning on Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina.

It's deployed three times as many search and rescue teams to the areas in Florence's path as it had by the day Hurricane Harvey first made landfall off the Texas coast in August 2017. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has stocked warehouses in the region surrounding North and South Carolina and Virginia with 20 times as many meals and 40 times as much water as it had in warehouses in Texas and Louisiana ahead of Harvey.

President Donald Trump, who has bristled at criticisms of his administration's response to the 2017 hurricanes, said Tuesday in the Oval Office that his administration would pull out all the stops to prepare for Hurricane Florence.

"We are sparing no expense. We are totally prepared. We're ready. We're as ready as anybody has ever been," Trump said.

FEMA officials confirmed that the agency's efforts to deploy more resources early are intentional, noting that increased pre-storm preparation were among the agency's recommendations in its assessment of its performance during hurricane season last year.

"We look at every disaster and we say how can we do it better and we don't take years to make it better," said FEMA official Alex Amparo.

But some say that increased focus also reflects the political pressures on the agency two months before the midterm elections in a storm that hit solid Republican territory.

"In a political situation where there's a concern about the federal response, we always see the feds overdoing it," said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University.

A well-managed disaster can help burnish a politician's reputation in an election year, said Clifford Villa, a former EPA lawyer who was involved in the agency's response to various disasters. He pointed to Hurricane Sandy, in 2012, which touched down on the northeast a month before the 2012 election.

"You saw all those pictures of President Obama with (then-New Jersey Gov.) Chris Christie," Villa said. Christie, a Republican, drew partisan criticism for hugging Obama on camera when the president arrived to survey the damage. And the federal funding for that storm, which hit largely Democratic states, is still a political issue.

But Obama's FEMA director at the time, Craig Fugate, said he never felt any political pressure from Obama during Hurricane Sandy.

"He said do your job, there wasn't anything about the election," Fugate said.

And he said the same about his time as Florida's emergency management director under Gov. Jeb Bush.

FEMA's role in the aftermath of a storm has historically been to support local and state governments, rather than taking the lead in emergency response. But its role changed in the wake of FEMA's much-maligned response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when federal officials delayed providing help with evacuations because they hadn't gotten a formal request from the state of Louisiana.

Legislation passed in 2006 gave FEMA more latitude to respond to a disaster whether or not a state issued a particular request.

And the agency has focused more on preparing supplies and having contracts for relief in place ahead of the storm, said Gary Webb, chair of the Emergency Management and Disaster Science department at the University of North Texas.

"The whole notion of pre-positioning supplies ahead of storms is a response to Hurricane Katrina," Webb said.

During Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year, FEMA officials had to take on more of the responsibilities for early response in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which stretched the agency's resources and highlighted shortcomings in its preparations.

Experts say Hurricane Florence likely won't pose the same challenges.

"This is an easy response for FEMA because they are supporting well-prepared states," Fugate said. "What they need from FEMA is a checkbook."

The real test for FEMA in its response to Florence won't be its immediate response, experts said, but its ability to help affected areas recover from the aftermath of the storm.

"Where things fall apart is what do we do about the recovery?" Redlener said.

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