Governor Bush defends FEMA response

He says no amount of work by the agency could overcome a lack of preparation.

Published September 7, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, breaking his silence Wednesday on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi, rushed to FEMA's defense saying criticism of the agency is misguided.

Bush, probably the governor with the most experience with the Federal Emergency Management Agency after last year's record-breaking hurricane season, said the country's emergency response system only works well when local and state officials have done their job preparing for disasters and then are ambitious about asking for federal assistance.

"The notion that somehow FEMA has thousands of specialists that can come at the drop of a hat is really a misguided notion," Bush said. "Can they do a better job? Absolutely ... But the notion somehow that the federal government should take this over is a very foolhardy notion."

By the time the fourth hurricane hit Florida last summer, for example, Florida and FEMA had established a joint command structure. "But frankly, again, if we weren't prepared, if we didn't do our part, no amount of work by FEMA could have overcome that lack of preparation," Bush said.

The governor's remarks were a sharp contrast to the past week when Bush, the younger brother of President Bush, has refused to comment on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, saying critics were taking advantage of a tragedy to win public opinion.

On Wednesday he said he had concerns that Congress might alter the system to the detriment of what has worked well in Florida.

Bush credited Hurricane Andrew in 1992 as serving as wake-up call for Florida, putting it ahead of many other states in drafting coordination agreements across local and state lines and improving emergency infrastructure. "We were better than most states in responding to storms prior to last summer, I honestly believe that," Bush said. "But after last summer we also learned a lot."

No federal official fresh in the field can do nearly as well, he stressed.

"The strength that we have is that we make this a high priority and so the mayor of Miami-Dade County and the county manager, those guys know what they're doing. They're battle-tested," Bush said. "They don't need to have people in Washington, D.C., telling them what to do."

Among the ideas the governor said his staff is working on for future storms: Creating hardened megashelters in some rural areas of the state where counties might not be able to afford building a fortified structure individually. During Hurricane Charley last year, the roof of the Turner Civic Center in Arcadia, which was sheltering roughly 1,400 people, was badly damaged forcing evacuees to flee to a high school across the street.

Generally, the state prefers smaller shelters for evacuees. "But we won't do mass sheltering facilities (like the Superdome in New Orleans) unless there is mass support to go with," he said.

Joni James can be reached at 850 224-7263 or jjames@sptimes.com