October 25, 2007
FEMA says it's better
By Dana Wilkie
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON – By designating San Diego and
six other fire-ravaged counties major disaster areas
yesterday, President Bush trained a spotlight on his
Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is intent on
proving it has learned some hard lessons from its slow
response and poor coordination after Hurricane Katrina.
PEGGY PEATTIE / Union-Tribune
Steven Ko of Fairbanks Ranch passed time on his
computer as he and his wife camped out at Qualcomm
The next several days and weeks will show whether the
agency provides Southern California fire victims with more
efficient help on housing, home repairs, medical
assistance and transportation than it did in New Orleans
and the Gulf Coast two years ago.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has warned that this
will be a “real test” for FEMA.
FEMA officials from Washington to San Diego appear to
have gotten the message.
“We know not to sit and wait for a call declaring an
emergency to begin mobilizing our forces,” Darryl J.
Madden, a FEMA spokesman and recent arrival to San Diego.
FEMA representatives were filtering into San Diego
before Bush issued yesterday's declaration, another
bureaucratic trigger for FEMA to begin provide assistance
to victims. Top officials from FEMA and the Department of
Homeland Security have made visits and the president plans
to tour San Diego County fire areas today.
Telephone: 1-800-621-FEMA (3362);
1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech
impaired. (From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
News you can use: Important information
for homeowners, B3
The financial assistance could include reimbursement
for temporary housing – such as rental housing or
trailers, for up to 18 months. It could also include up to
$28,800 per victim for expenses not covered by insurance,
such as home repairs, replacing personal property, medical
and dental assistance, transportation and storage costs.
Additionally, the agency will reimburse state or local
governments up to 75 percent for repairing or replacing
public structures – such as buildings or bridges – and the
same percentage for firefighting costs such as overtime,
firefighter field camps, meals and rented equipment.
FEMA aid is limited to $5 million unless the president
approves more spending, which is likely to happen.
The agency's mantra – repeated often by FEMA officials
in recent days – appears to be “forward leaning,” a term
that implies the agency is trying to think far ahead of
About 50 FEMA representatives wearing identifying
T-shirts have been at the Qualcomm Stadium evacuation
center spreading the word that assistance is available.
FEMA representatives will start going door to door in
damaged neighborhoods informing people of assistance.
The stadium's mobile FEMA center – available since
yesterday morning for victims wanting to file assistance
applications – will soon move as FEMA creates information
centers throughout the county.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration has made no
complaints about FEMA.
“We are nothing but pleased with their response,” said
Michael Sicilia, spokesman for the California Office of
Now part of the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA's
charge is to manage the many federal agencies that respond
to a national disaster. While the agency provides some
emergency supplies – such as the 25,000 cots, 25,000
blankets and 81,000 liters of water it sent to fire
victims Tuesday – its principal mission is to help victims
rebuild their lives in the weeks and months following a
disaster, chiefly through financial assistance.
Still, there are potential pitfalls:
Fire victims can expect lots
of paperwork and long waits on FEMA telephone lines. After
victims experienced similar frustrations following
Katrina, the agency added more trained operators to the
thousands who work on disaster phone lines.
While renters and homeowners
can receive paid temporary housing for up to 18 months,
renters must reapply every month and homeowners every
The agency offers to help
cities and counties pay for debris removal after fires.
But in a dispute with FEMA, San Diego County was not
reimbursed by FEMA for the money it spent removing debris
from the 2003 fires.
Many victims may not
understand the urgency of filing an application with FEMA.
The deadline for most individual assistance programs is 60
days after the president's disaster declaration.
Staff writer Ronald
W. Powell contributed to this report.