FEMA chief says economy adds to storm challenges

Associated Press
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate gestures while addressing the audience at the 2011 National Hurricane Conference in Atlanta, Tuesday, April 19, 2011. Federal, state and local officials attend the conference which is aimed at boosting preparations for hurricane season. (AP Photo/Jason Bronis)
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Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate on Tuesday stressed how important it is for newly elected public officials to learn how to respond during hurricanes and other powerful storms and that a bad economy is no excuse not to prepare.

"As much as we talk about the public, this team is constantly changing," he said. "There has been a tremendous turnover. How many of the elected leadership are going to participate — and not just for the photo op?"

Speaking to attendees at the National Hurricane Conference, Fugate said that governors, mayors and others must participate in hurricane preparedness drills to understand the decisions they could have to make this summer. He also stressed the need for emergency management community to take advantage of social media to engage the public and work more with the private sector to fill in the gaps in support when responding to disasters.

Fugate dismissed the notion that states and local governments facing budget woes would be reluctant to respond to disasters like hurricanes, pointing to the response to last week's devastating tornadoes across the South.

"Just because the economy's horrible doesn't mean hurricanes stop," Fugate said.

National Hurricane Center Director Bill Read also spoke at the conference. He recapped the 2010 season, which he said had the highest number of hurricanes without a U.S. landfall.

Read said that among his priorities this year is outreach to prepare communities and empower the public. He said his top concern for the upcoming season is Haiti, where 1.5 million people are still living in tents and are highly vulnerable to a major hurricane.

"That's going to be my biggest gut check," he said. "I don't know how many people can be safely dealt with in a hurricane of that magnitude."

The conference continues through Saturday.

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