The oped piece by Jesselyn Radack on Sept. 27 accused the Federal Emergency Management Agency of a poor response in Texas following Hurricane Ike. Having been the lead state public affairs officer for North Carolina during 12 presidentially declared disasters (six of them hurricanes) I can tell you that all disasters begin and end at the local level.
Any disaster is first handled by local agencies. If it is beyond their capabilities, they call for mutual aid for neighboring jurisdictions.
These are the first responders.
If the incident is still beyond all those assets, the local emergency management office requests help from the state's emergency management agency. While resources are coming from across the state, the local officials are still in charge until they are relieved. If the incident is so large that it is beyond the state's ability to handle, then, and only then, can the federal government get involved. To put it another way, FEMA is not a first-response agency, nor was it ever intended to be.
That the Texas governor's Division of Emergency Management and FEMA were able to get a disaster assistance center open within two days of the hurricane making landfall is exceedingly fast, especially when you consider the extent of damage resulting from the hurricane.
First they have to find a location that is structurally sound, large enough for the purpose, has electricity and telephone service, enough parking space for the storm's survivors and the workers, and is accessible. Oh, and it needs to be close enough to where those who need assistance live and/or work so that they don't have to drive half a day to get there.
Following Hurricane Floyd in 1999, North Carolina Emergency Management requested the Federal Aviation Administration designate the storm's impact area a "no fly zone" for one simple reason: to enable us to manage the scores of rescue helicopters and support aircraft to do their work without having to worry about "sightseeing" aircraft. The new media I have worked with over the past 43 years have always been very respectful of the no fly zones and have still been able to get the pictures they need to help convey the story.
Finally, distribution of relief commodities has always been the responsibility of state and local emergency management. FEMA gets the ice, water, shelter, tarps, etc. to the state, the state directs it to the county and the county (or city) handles distribution.
Based on what I have seen and heard, the Texas Governor's Division of Emergency Management and FEMA did a great job in responding to Hurricane Ike. It's too bad that more people didn't heed the warning to prepare for the storm and evacuate the area. If they had, maybe fewer people would have been killed or injured and the destruction less severe.
Thomas R. Hegele is the retired chief of the Education & Emergency Information Section of the North Carolina Emergency Management Division.