So, FEMA goes from not responding to Katrina, to responding with a great deal of staff for Hawaii.
I guess it's better to have them, and not need them, then to repeat Katrina, right?
Oct. 19, 2006 12:00 AM
KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii - The earthquake that jolted the Hawaiian Islands over the weekend set off one of the biggest FEMA deployments since Hurricane Katrina, including a planeload of about 100 federal experts who arrived here to find no catastrophe.
Nearly 14 months after the devastating hurricane, "forward-leaning" is the buzzword at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was harshly criticized for its flat-footed response to Katrina.
"If Katrina's done anything, it's given us a sense of 'Go!' " said Jeffrey D. Lusk, an earthquake specialist who led damage assessments along the northwestern coast of the island of Hawaii, known as the Big Island. "Err on the side of too much, too early, instead of not enough."
Lusk's team found little damage here from Sunday's magnitude-6.7 quake. At a hospital near Kona, ceiling tiles fell onto surgical tables and water leaked from an overhead pipe, forcing the patients out. At Kawaihae Harbor, damage to piers shut the facility down and cut off the west side of the island to incoming goods through Tuesday afternoon.
Elsewhere, Environmental Protection Agency experts flown here Monday night on a government-leased jet found no spills that merited federal assistance. And locally based search-and-rescue and medical-response teams placed on alert by the federal government were never dispatched.
Many of the workers brought in aboard the FEMA-chartered plane were kept on standby for tasks as mundane as driving vans and moving boxes. Among them were smokejumpers, the U.S. Forest Service firefighters who parachute into wildfires.
One FEMA official here estimated that bringing in the federal workers cost $400,000. Most of that - some $250,000 - represented the cost of leasing a jet that was parked in New York City when the quake struck. About 100 officials from across the federal bureaucracy were on the plane, and all needed housing and transportation once they got here.
FEMA officials rejected the notion that the response was an overreaction by a chastened agency.
"When you look at what happened in New Orleans, I don't think you can put too much energy, resources - too much anything - into preventing that kind of catastrophe," said Kim Walz, spokeswoman for the FEMA region that includes Hawaii.
It was 52 hours after the Sunday earthquake before the first members of the FEMA team flown in from the U.S. mainland reached the Big Island. FEMA officials said that was because they wanted to assemble the whole team first, rather than allow members to converge separately on Hawaii and find themselves unable to communicate with each other. Also, FEMA officials said they had to wait for a Coast Guard cargo plane to take them on the last leg of the journey, from Honolulu to the Big Island.
FEMA has offices, warehouse space and a staff stationed permanently in Hawaii, and within two hours of the earthquake, its workers were doing preliminary damage surveys and firing up generators amid blackouts. Within six hours, a small team aboard a Coast Guard cargo plane reached the Big Island, near the quake's epicenter.
A much broader federal effort was unfolding in Oakland, Calif., the headquarters for the FEMA region that includes Hawaii. With power knocked out across broad swaths of Oahu and phone service spotty, officials there began assembling a "go" team according to the guidelines of the National Response Plan.