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FEMA confident Florida is prepared

Relations with a state are critical during a disaster, the head of the agency's long-term recovery office says.

Published August 13, 2006

Two years ago today Hurricane Charley roared ashore in Charlotte County, marking the beginning of one of the deadliest hurricane seasons in Florida history.

Nine months later, the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up a long-term recovery office in Orlando to better handle demands following the tumultuous 2004 season.

Scott Morris, 36, FEMA's deputy chief of staff in Washington, was tapped to be the director of the new office. He moved his family to Orlando in May 2005 and expected to stay for three years. But then came the 2005 hurricane season, which was almost as active in Florida as the year before. Now, Morris' stay in Florida has been prolonged indefinitely.

The St. Petersburg Times sat down with Morris to discuss how his agency is working to change its image in the wake of criticism after Hurricane Katrina, cut down on fraud and prepare the state for a major disaster.

Thankfully, we've had a fairly uneventful hurricane season so far this year. In your opinion, how ready is the state of Florida to respond to a major hurricane?

Florida is the best-prepared state in the nation, hands down. And they have the best team in the nation. Obviously, Gov. Jeb Bush has put a premium on this since his first day in office. It's built from the top down.

I think every level of government in the state of Florida truly understands what their role is in a response. Our response begins at the most local levels, at ground zero. And then it builds each layer after that, builds and adds more to the fight.

So where does FEMA fit into that structure?

There are a lot of misconceptions out there. We are not an insurance company. We cannot make an individual whole. We cannot bring individuals back to where they were prestorm. But what we can do is prop them up, give them money, give them rent checks, give them money to go out and buy items that are damaged.

If in fact their dwellings are damaged, we can come in - as a temporary measure - with travel trailers and mobile homes to help these folks get a roof over their head, get their life back to some sort of reasonable place.

How has FEMA changed since Hurricane Charley?

The 2004 season was one of those seasons where FEMA really became very forward leaning. The immediate response to the hurricanes in the 2004 season, I thought, went phenomenally well. And I think the majority of the folks out there think it went very, very well, too.

It's all based on our relationship with the state. If you don't have the relationship with the state, it's not going to work very well. I think 2004 really triggered a new era for FEMA in a response mode.

Some of the people hardest hit by Hurricane Charley are still living in FEMA-provided travel trailers. But FEMA has declared those people must move out by Sept. 26. What are you doing to help those people?

Typically, our housing mission runs for 18 months. That 18-month deadline was Feb. 13 of this year. We extended that an additional six months. The reason we did that was the lack of affordable housing. Affordable housing has been an issue here in Florida for many, many years prior to the 2004-05 season. Unfortunately, those big seasons exacerbated the problem.

We're working with the counties, the state and the communities that are housing these folks right now. We are working with faith-based organizations, community action groups and the private sector. We are doing everything we can to help these folks find a permanent housing solution.

We are about 90 percent done. At the height of it, we had more than 17,000 people in trailers and now it's just 1,600. We have made some tremendous progress. My goal, on Sept. 26, is that every one of those individuals and families will have left our travel trailers and found permanent housing.

You say the 2004 response was generally considered to be good. But the response to Hurricane Katrina was widely regarded as a failure. Are there lessons that you and your office took away from Katrina?

Of course. We take away lessons from every storm. But I think the model we have down here in Florida works very, very well. It's one team, one fight. The government structure down here is very different. They know what their role is. I don't think a Katrina-like catastrophe would happen here in Florida, based on Florida's ability and preparedness, to handle the storms.

Folks forget that Hurricane Wilma was larger than any two of the 2004 storms combined. I am very proud of the response and the recovery efforts after Wilma. Considering all the criticism that FEMA had received after Katrina, I think the response to Wilma speaks volumes about the state of Florida and how it's set up to address these issues.

Because it's surrounded by so much water, some people are afraid Tampa Bay may be vulnerable to a Katrina-like disaster. Is the Tampa Bay area prepared for a catastrophic storm?

I think they are very prepared. I think all the levels of government there understood what needs to be done, even prior to Katrina. Let's take it a year back - Charley was going directly toward Tampa. Everyone was extremely worried about that, but I think Tampa was very well prepared.

Would there be problems if something like that happens? Absolutely. But they're not going to be caught flat-footed.

For months, Congress has debated whether FEMA should remain a branch of the Department of Homeland Security or if it should be a separate agency. Has the uncertainty been difficult for you and your office?

No. I feel we are going to perform our duties no matter where we are.

Do you have an opinion on where FEMA belongs?

I think there is a role for FEMA in the Department of Homeland Security. Absolutely.

There were widespread reports of FEMA misdirecting money after the 2004 season and in the wake of Katrina. What's your office doing about that? Is that a concern of yours?

Absolutely. But we're also just as concerned about not getting the money out. If the money doesn't get down to the individuals, that to me is just as disastrous as money getting into the wrong hands. The percentages are low on the fraudulent claims. Any fraud is too much fraud. But, going too far to correct the system would be just as disastrous.

If you look at the 2005 season here in Florida, you're not seeing many of those fraud cases popping up. We've kept a close eye on it. We have set up a fraud unit within the Florida Long Term Recovery Office to work very closely with the inspector general's office.

Lastly, do you fear people are becoming overly dependent on FEMA for aid in the wake of a hurricane?

There needs to be some personal responsibility and some personal preparedness. You should not have to rely on the government when the stores are popping open and the power lines are coming back up. You need to be self-sufficient for 72 hours. That's not a lot to ask.

When you make the decision not to be prepared, you're not only putting yourself in danger, you're putting your family in danger and, perhaps, your neighbors in danger. And ultimately you're putting the first-responders in danger because they're going to have to come in and help you out. You're making decisions that are going to affect a lot of people down the line. To me, that is irresponsible.

[Last modified August 13, 2006, 01:21:35]

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