Former Miami-Dade fire chief put FEMA back on track

Jan 26, 2009

Miami Herald--January 25, 2009


David Paulison, the former Miami-Dade fire chief picked by President Bush to rehabilitate the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the drubbing it took for its anemic response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, gets good marks from fellow emergency managers for helping to get the agency back on track.

”David took FEMA and I believe, turned it around,” said Nancy Dragani, president of the National Emergency Management Association and director of Ohio’s emergency management agency. “He left that agency in much better shape than when he took it.”

Paulison says there’s still room for improvement, but is confident Katrina wouldn’t happen again. He left just as President Barack Obama comes into office, saying it’s time for some “fresh eyes.”

In an interview with The Miami Herald, edited for space, he reflects on the agency he inherited and the one he’s turning over to the new administration.

Q: What was FEMA like when you got there?

A: “I came in and found a group of very dedicated, hard-working people that were demoralized. It was understaffed and underfunded and not the right type of leadership — not just here at headquarters, but nationwide. We have 10 regions out there, and we had only two regional directors . . . and both of those were deployed dealing with Katrina.”

Q : What have you accomplished?

A: “I started reaching out to the emergency management community and started hand-picking people that I knew knew how to deal with disasters and had dealt with disasters before. For the first time in FEMA’s history, all 10 regional offices are filled. And I filled all of our senior slots here with people who understood emergency management. I took them from law enforcement, I took them from fire, I used Coast Guard people, people from all walks of life, but people who had experience dealing with disasters . . .

“The other thing was staffing. Right after Katrina, we had Rita, back to back. When I started trying to make things happen for Rita, I ran out of people. We didn’t have enough people to do all the things I knew needed to be done based on my experience dealing with hurricanes down in Florida. So I went to Congress; I asked for more people. We only had about 1,500 full-time staff when I took over; now we’re up around 3,500, and we’ll be over 4,000 with slots we have approved.”

Q : What did you see as your most important priority?

A: “Changing the culture of how we respond . . . not just FEMA, but nationwide. We’ve set up a system over the last 25 years of what I call a system of sequential failure, where we wait for the local community to become overwhelmed before the state steps in. We wait for the state to become overwhelmed before the federal government steps in. We saw in Katrina that doesn’t work. . . We saw what happened in the Super Dome, waiting days for buses to show up to get people out of there . . . now if you go to Hurricane Dean — which didn’t hit, or ones that did like Ike and Gustav — having hundreds of ambulances, thousands of buses, dozens of urban search and rescue teams, prestaging medical assets, all of that was in place before the hurricanes made landfall. That’s a tremendous change in philosophy of how we’re going to respond to disasters.”

Q: You will be hosting a press conference soon via Twitter. What other social-networking technology is FEMA embracing and why?

A: “It’s been very difficult to get people to understand that, regardless of where you live in the country, that you have to be prepared . . . there’s hardly any place in the country that doesn’t have some type of disaster — flood or earthquake or tornado. When I was fire chief in [Miami-]Dade, we set up a new huge place for press. That was the only mechanism that any emergency management agency had of getting the word out, using the local media. But the normal means of communication we’ve been using haven’t been working . . . It’s not working, so we’re trying new things — Twitter, YouTube. We’re using the Internet to say, `Is there a better way to get to the general population, to get emergency management information out? We’re just going to try everything we can do. . . . This younger generation is more into the electronic media, so we have to adapt. . . . I’m old-school, but you’ve got to adapt to what the public wants.”

Q: There is a lot of talk about whether FEMA should remain in the Department of Homeland Security. (Critics suggest the agency would be improved by spinning it off on its own.) What would be your recommendation to the incoming administration?

A: ‘Inside DHS, I’ve had access to a tremendous amount of assets. [DHS leaders] meet every Wednesday . . . We’ve developed a personal relationship, so all it takes is a phone call to get assistance from somebody. When Ike went through Texas . . . I called Kip Hawley at TSA (the Transportation Security Administration). He had 300 TSA screeners who were in Houston in case the current screeners had to go home. He had brought in screeners from all over the country, so the next day I had 300 people just like that . . . When I needed to have an assessment of how much damage we had, I called Ralph Basham from Border Patrol and they used their predator-type plane to fly and send live pictures back. . . . Those type of things are right at your fingertips inside of Homeland Security. My advice to the next group will be, `Whatever decision you make, do it very methodically.’ Don’t do a knee-jerk reaction: ‘Oh yeah, let’s jerk FEMA out.’ I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do. . . . My recommendation would be to leave it in Homeland Security.”

Q : Your tenure had two controversies: FEMA’s travel trailers (Complaints about exposure to formaldehyde in FEMA-supplied trailers arose shortly after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005; critics said FEMA was slow to respond) and ice distribution (FEMA in 2007 was criticized for suspending delivery of ice to storm-hit areas).

A: “The travel trailers are something FEMA has used for years — there was no reason to suspect that there was a problem with formaldehyde, and unfortunately there was. Could we have reacted a little quicker with that? Maybe, but no one really knew. We were not formaldehyde experts. We are now . . .

Unfortunately, there was no housing, so you couldn’t just say, ‘Ok, get out of these things,’ without putting people in the street. And people didn’t want to move to another state. Eventually, we were able to find enough housing . . . Manufacturers now tell us they can build a low-formaldehyde or formaldehyde-free travel trailer, and so that will be in our quiver for the next hurricane season . . .

Q: Is housing part of FEMA’s mandate?

A: “I don’t know how FEMA got into the housing business. I’m not sure it should have. But it is, so we’re going to do our part, but we can’t do it alone. We need to work with every state. They’ve all got to have a housing plan, too, and HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) has to be involved, with FEMA doing its piece. Between all of us, we should be able to do much better than the past.”

Q: What’s left to be done?

A: “The piece that still needs to be worked on is the catastrophic housing piece. How are we going to house if we have 100,000 homes, let’s say in Florida, that are uninhabitable, or even 10,000 homes that are uninhabitable? . . . If we had a Category 5 like the 1926 hurricane that went into Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach and across the other side, we’d have a lot of people we’d have to house, and how do we do that? . . . Two pieces that are missing are housing and personal preparedness. You can’t feed the entire population with MRE’s. People have to be able to take care of themselves for at least three days. What we saw in Wilma was tens of thousands of people lined up for food, water and ice the day after the winds died down, so that tells me they weren’t ready . . . This country has got to get back to a culture of preparedness.”

Q : What happened? Why aren’t people ready for emergencies?

A :“We saw after Andrew, we saw everybody for the next four or five years getting ready for hurricanes, and then it kind of died out. Here Wilma comes along . . . People didn’t lose their homes . . . yet people were out there in line for food and water the day after the storm. That shouldn’t happen. You can’t move that much food, that much water that quickly if people aren’t taking care of themselves.”

Q: Weren’t some officials criticized for suggesting people should have three days’ worth of supplies?

A: “They have to. It doesn’t take that much. We understand there are some people who either physically or fiscally or mentally can’t do it, that’s the ones government should be taking care of. But when you have people coming through the line in a Mercedes to get their two MRE’s and a bag of ice, there’s something wrong with that picture.”

Q : FEMA isn’t giving out ice anymore? (The agency was criticized in 2007 for suspending ice delivery)

A: ‘We passed out millions of pounds of ice during Ike and Gustav, but FEMA is not storing ice anymore. We’re using the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers to deliver ice as we need it. What was happening, FEMA had ice in warehouses all around the country and it cost a fortune to store it. It’s got a short life, then you have to throw it away. I said, `This is stupid.’ So FEMA is not going to be in the ice business . . .”

Q: Do you feel confident there won’t be a repeat of Hurricane Katrina? If a similar storm occurs?

A: “Absolutely. Very confident. Ike and Gustav were pretty good storms — the levees didn’t fail, but guess what, there was no one left in New Orleans. The city and the state, working with us, put a great evacuation plan in place.

Even if the levies had failed, you wouldn’t have been rescuing people off rooftops. No one would have been at the Super Dome. It would have been an entirely different situation had that same storm hit.”

Q : What will be your legacy, coming in after the most famous FEMA director?

A:“The culture change. The fact that we are going to be proactive rather than reactive. And setting the gauntlet down that people who come into FEMA have to be professional emergency managers. I don’t think they can go back to hiring people for their politics anymore . . . It’s OK to hire people from the same party, of course . . . but [we must make] sure whoever does come in, regardless of party affiliation, is qualified to do the job . . . I think we’ve set that bar pretty high, and I can’t imagine going back to the old way. I think we’ve set a precedent. And for this position: Whoever comes in here, I think the public will demand — I think Congress will demand — that the person sitting in this seat have extensive disaster experience.”

Q : What’s next?

A: ‘I don’t know. My wife keeps asking me the same thing. She says, `You know you need a job.’ I’m going to wait. I’ve intentionally not focused on that. I want to be 100 percent the FEMA administrator until Jan 21. I don’t want to be distracted with something else. There’s still work to do, trying to wrap up things we started.”