Once-Reviled FEMA Praised During its Time in Arkansas

May 28, 2008

Janis Brothers walked through her tornado-damaged home with a recent visitor, passing a back wall and ceiling ripped away by winds and into the cavernous walk-in closet where she and her family hid as the storm passed.

“We were so lucky,” said Brothers, 60, as she began to cry. “God was with us.”

Her visitor, Jamiliah Fraser, hugged her as she wept. Brothers’ hands wrapped around Fraser’s blue windbreaker, a bold white “FEMA” written across its back.

Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, reviled by many after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, have taken up an almost permanent presence in Arkansas after a series of deadly storms, flooding and other disasters. And in a state where some evacuees still live after the 2005 hurricanes, people from devastated communities and state government say the agency’s response shows a change for the better.

“They’ve been acting quickly,” Gov. Mike Beebe told reporters while touring tornado damage in Stuttgart after the May 10 tornado. “I’ve been pleased with FEMA’s response.”

A year ago, Beebe offered a far different assessment for an agency that was run by Arkansan James Lee Witt when Bill Clinton was in the White House. In February 2007, tornadoes swept through the southern Arkansas town of Dumas, injuring 27 people and damaging 150 homes.

President Bush declined to declare the area a federal disaster area, meaning fewer dollars went toward its recovery. Beebe and other members of the state’s congressional delegation criticized the agency for moving slowly when it already had thousands of mobile homes stored in the state at the Hope airport for disaster relief.

But within three days of a deadly round of storms this year, FEMA administrator R. David Paulison toured Atkins, where three people died Feb. 5 in an outbreak that killed 13 in the state.

“We’re a different agency. We’re here for the long haul,” Paulison promised reporters standing in a destroyed neighborhood. “We’ll be here after the cameras are off.”

FEMA opened an office in a vacant factory in southwest Little Rock, with Internet cables hanging down from drop ceilings and old telephone junction boxes sprouting new lines. The agency used new techniques in quickly responding to the storms, said Ken Riley, the federal coordinating officer for FEMA’s response in Arkansas.

FEMA officials rode on National Guard helicopters and airplanes with the Civil Air Patrol to examine the deadly tracks of the tornadoes that swept across Arkansas. From the air, officials could count the rooftops of the damaged homes and buildings, a method Riley said that cut days off their assessment.

Officials returned to the air for the widespread flood across Arkansas’ rice fields in the east. Those in the air and on the ground used tablet-sized computers to note the damage and place the locations with Global Position System satellites. The computers, first used last year in Oklahoma, haven’t been implemented across the agency, Riley said.

“The biggest thing we’ve done here and you’re going to see on future disasters is we do a lot of leaning forward,” Riley said. “What we’re doing is we’re providing new ideas, we’re getting as much support to the state as possible.”

Riley said the agency has leaned a little too forward at times. At one point, FEMA brought an initial team of 26 officials into Arkansas, which “somewhat overwhelmed” state officials. In the time since, Riley said FEMA officials have worked out agreements with state emergency management officials on how they should handle work in the field.

Tornadoes also hit the state in January, March and April, and a foot of snow fell in portions of northern Arkansas in the winter.

A few days after a tornado hit Stuttgart, FEMA teams joined local and state officials on a tour of the area. At the Brothers family’s home, they stood out in the greens of a nearby golf course, taking photographs of the house’s torn-away back wall and roof.
Carl Brothers, 62, said the family’s homeowner insurance likely would coverage the damage done.

“I didn’t think about them coming through,” Brothers said of FEMA. “I’m sure they’re sensitive with what happened with Katrina and it doesn’t surprise me that they’re here.”

After the Stuttgart tornado, FEMA packed up and moved out of its factory home in Little Rock to a new location across town. Riley said the agency has a month-to-month lease, but acknowledged it likely would take until November to handle all the remaining issues from March flooding and storms. Responding to May’s storms could take even longer.

Riley said that, at the grocery store, many often stop to thank him for being in the state after they see a FEMA seal on a polo shirt or lettering of a jacket. However, he acknowledged Arkansas’ waning tolerance of the year’s wicked weather.

“I think the state would like to see all of us gone,” Riley said, laughing. “Everyone I talk to welcomes our presence and what we’re doing, but even some of the congressional people and judges out there in the county, I guess they want it to come to an end, all these storms and tornadoes.”

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