FEMA readies for regional disasters
OAKLAND, Calif. » The Federal Emergency Management Agency is quietly drawing up plans for a handful of disasters: devastating earthquakes beneath San Francisco and St. Louis and catastrophic storms in southern Florida and Hawaii, FEMA's chief said Thursday.
In a departure from its traditional expectation that states develop such responses, the agency is forming "base plans" for responding to specific calamities, FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said Thursday in an interview.
The Hawaii initiative, focusing on the impact of a catastrophic hurricane, has not been drawn up yet, said Kelly Hudson, public affairs specialist for FEMA's Region IX office.
"Whether it's catastrophic or mild, any plan begins at the local level, and everybody will be at the table for this," Hudson said. "We're just trying to sharpen the sword, if you will."
Hudson said the national FEMA office has not yet released $1.5 million required for the study, but work on the plan could begin within the next six months. FEMA will be working closely with Hawaii state and county officials on the initiative.
FEMA officials expect to finish plans for a massive Bay Area quake response by the end of the year and are at work on another response blueprint for a large quake on the New Madrid fault, which runs from southern Illinois to northeastern Arkansas and lurks beneath St. Louis, Paulison said.
The federal government is spending $5 million to develop the Florida plans, about $17 million for the New Madrid plan and $1 million for Northern California.
FEMA also is preparing for a Category 5 hurricane in the Miami area and has nearly completed response guidelines for a failure of the 143-mile dike around Lake Okeechobee, northwest of Miami, he said. About 45,000 people live in flood-prone areas around the lake.
Next year, FEMA hopes to obtain additional funding to write another plan for an earthquake catastrophe in Southern California, said Nancy Ward, regional administrator for FEMA's Region IX, which includes California, Arizona, Nevada, Guam, Hawaii and other Pacific islands.
FEMA has adopted a more aggressive stance toward disasters since Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the Southeast in 2005. FEMA officials said the agency worked closely with the state and city to complete a New Orleans-area disaster plan prior to hurricane season.
Paulison called it a "culture change" at FEMA, adding that the old model of waiting for states to plead for federal help was a recipe for "sequential failure."
"We've got to go in as partners," he said. "We've got to stand side by side.
"We're going to move in early; we're not going to wait for the state to ask for things before we start moving them. We're going to anticipate what the needs are, and then when they ask for them, we're going to be there. The worst that can happen is they don't need them."
Star-Bulletin reporter Gene Park contributed to this report.