Disaster will test government's emergency response

August 27, 1992|By Edmund L. Andrews | Edmund L. Andrews,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Hurricane Andrew poses a daunting test for the agency that coordinates federal disaster relief programs, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was criticized for its lack of preparation in responding to Hurricane Hugo and the earthquake in Northern California three years ago.

Acknowledging that the agency was overwhelmed by the back-to-back disasters in 1989, officials of the agency yesterday outlined a broad effort to ship in food, electrical generators, medical teams and hundreds of relief workers to Florida and Louisiana.

How effective these efforts will be is subject to question. The biggest problems after Hurricane Hugo struck in 1989 was not the immediate job of providing emergency help, but rather the task of processing federal loans and grants for rebuilding that hTC are available to homeowners, farmers and businesses.

In a development that may complicate this effort, White House officials confirmed yesterday that the agency's deputy director, Jerry Jennings, was being transferred to a different job within the administration. Neither White House nor emergency management officials would comment on why or exactly when Mr. Jennings would switch jobs, or what his new job would be.

Grant C. Peterson, associate administrator of the agency, said it had allocated $57 million in "seed money" for Florida and $77 million for Louisiana to get relief operations under way. At the moment, he said, the agency has $400 million available to spend on delivering food, temporary housing and emergency services, and President Bush has authority to spend another $145 million.

But those amounts are almost certain to be dwarfed by the magnitude of the disaster. Dade County officials estimated the damage in Florida at $15 billion to $20 billion, though federal officials placed it at $10 billion to $12 billion and had not begun to tally estimates for Louisiana or Texas. At a minimum, however, the costs to Florida alone are likely to be twice those caused by Hugo in South Carolina.

Indeed, it is still unclear just who is in charge of the federal relief effort. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is responsible for coordinating the relief efforts of 27 different agencies, from disaster loan programs of the Small Business Administration to emergency flood loans for farmers from the Farmers Home Administration.

But Mr. Bush announced he was creating a separate task force, headed by Secretary of Transportation Andrew H. Card Jr., which will look into broader efforts to provide help to people caught by the hurricane.

Mr. Bush, who flew to Louisiana yesterday afternoon to survey the devastation, also announced that $10 million would be set aside to hire 5,000 temporary workers in Florida to help clean and repair the damage.

The $10 million is a minuscule fraction of the money the federal government will ultimately spend for hiring cleanup workers and other relief efforts. After Hurricane Hugo, the emergency agency and the Small Business Administration provided $675 million in grants and loans to help South Carolina recover.

Mr. Bush, who faced considerable criticism in 1989 because he did not visit Charleston until a week after Hurricane Hugo, appeared determined to place his own imprimatur on the disaster relief effort for Hurricane Andrew. At a time when Mr. Bush is sagging in the polls in his campaign for re-election, the hurricane provides an ideal opportunity to put forward an image of presidential leadership.

Mr. Bush flew to Florida on Monday, the day the hurricane swept through the Miami area, and yesterday he followed the storm by flying to Lafayette, La.

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