San Diego Union Tribune

October 25, 2007

FEMA says it's better prepared


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 Stadium.

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.

Federal help


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 disaster.

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 Emergency Services.

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 three months.

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.