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FEMA Puts Post-Katrina Reforms to Work in Floods


President Bush says he'll visit Iowa on Thursday to inspect the flood damage. He also pledged aid for homeowners and farmers. The administration is trying to show that it's up to the task of responding to this latest natural disaster and that it's learned from mistakes made during Hurricane Katrina.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: When tornadoes and flooding hit the Midwest last week, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wasted no time getting on a plane to Iowa. He announced that the federal government was there to help.

Mr. MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Homeland Security Secretary): We're there with obviously first and foremost life-saving. We want to support search and rescue, commodities, whatever's needed for shelter and evacuation and ultimately, we will be there to stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow citizens in rebuilding.

FESSLER: And indeed, as Chertoff spoke, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was on the ground coordinating with state and local officials. The agency was also ready with truckloads of water, generators and other emergency supplies. One of the biggest complaints after Hurricane Katrina was that the federal government was too slow to act and often out of touch with what was happening in the disaster area. Today, President Bush, who was updated on the current relief effort, said his administration is in constant contact with Midwest officials, and that the administration is planning for the recovery.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Particularly when it comes to housing, a lot of people are going to be wondering, is there short-term help for housing? And there is, and we'll provide that help. And secondly, what's going to happen in the long term to the homes? And so Michael is going to set up a housing task force similar to the kind we set up in California for the wildfires, to work with state and local authorities.

FESSLER: That task force will be the first test of FEMA's new disaster housing plan just released last week, another by-product of Hurricane Katrina. The agency now wants to house disaster victims in hotels or apartments rather than in travel trailers, which have been found to have high levels of formaldehyde. FEMA officials say the task force should have housing plans ready in the next day or so. Right now, FEMA representatives are also going door to door inspecting damage in states such as Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa, where the floodwaters are starting to recede. It's the first step in providing individuals and communities with financial assistance. And so far, there have been few of the complaints that were so widespread after Katrina.

Mr. BILL CURTIS (Deputy Emergency Management Director, Winnebago County): Up until this point, we are very happy with the response.

FESSLER: Bill Curtis is the deputy emergency management director for Winnebago County, Wisconsin, where about 4,000 buildings in Oshkosh were damaged by heavy rain and floods.

Mr. CURTIS: FEMA was in town yesterday doing damage assessment along with the SBA, and they're coming back this morning as well to do some more damage assessment. The needs right now for the private citizens are replacing hot-water heaters and furnaces and air-conditioners and really just cleaning up the mess.

FESSLER: He hopes residents will be able to get small-business administration loans as well as some FEMA aid. President Bush says there's enough money in the federal disaster fund to cover the current emergency, but that he'll ask Congress for more to be ready for the next disaster.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.