Hurricane Katrina conjures up memories of President Bush assessing damage through the window of Air Force One. Worse was his verbal support of then-Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael D. Brown: "Heck of a job, Brownie." The government's botched handling of the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast became the stuff of stand-up comedians' routines and late-night talk show punch lines.
In the wake of massive flooding in the Midwest, though, FEMA is getting high marks for its response. This time, the agency was in front of the looming disaster. Said Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, "They have been trying hard to be proactive throughout this crisis and had people on site almost immediately after the flooding began." It is evidence of how much the agency has learned and evolved since the Katrina debacle.
The agency no longer waits to react. After the rain stopped falling in early June, FEMA delivered 13 million sandbags onto levees, 200 generators and 30 trucks to haul debris. In the upper Midwest, the agency has delivered more than 3.6 million liters of water and nearly 200,000 ready-to-eat meals. Some $81 million in housing assistance funds has been dispersed. The agency has received nearly 45,000 registrations for assistance from disaster victims in Iowa, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Is the response fast enough and broad enough? Probably not. When people are displaced by their homes and face uncertain futures, nothing but an immediate response would be satisfactory.
But even ardent critics of the Bush administration have offered positive early reviews of FEMA's handling of the floods. The agency clearly learned many lessons from its response to Katrina and has gone to great lengths to reform the agency. "We've changed the way we do business. We don't wait to react," Glenn Cannon, FEMA assistant administrator for disaster operations, told The Associated Press.
While some may accuse the news media and the popular media of piling on in the aftermath of the hurricanes in 2005, FEMA clearly took the lessons of Katrina to heart. The agency, according to multiple sources, has been right on top matters. That's highly commendable.