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US Disaster Preparedness Questioned

While Japan struggles to respond to multiple catastrophes stemming from last week’s earthquake and tsunami, America’s disaster preparedness leaves room for improvement.

It has been more than five years since Hurricane Katrina devastated America’s Gulf Coast and exposed significant shortcomings in the nation’s ability to respond to a major disaster. Since then, FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has improved its operations and preparedness, according to former Homeland Security Inspector General Richard Skinner. But deficiencies remain, according to a report Skinner wrote last year before retiring and presented to the Senate Thursday.

"We have made tremendous strides over the last four years since Hurricane Katrina. But if you ask if we are as prepared as we can be or should be, then the answer to that is no," he said.

Skinner said FEMA is moving in the right direction in upgrading its capabilities, but doing so at what he termed a "snail’s pace." His recommendations included implementing a strict performance measurement system for FEMA, and guarding against fraud, waste and abuse of FEMA resources.

That assessment was noted Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, who said events in Japan highlight the need to improve U.S. disaster preparations.

"Japan has been considered the gold standard of earthquake preparedness because they have had repeated experience with earthquakes. But this earthquake registered 9.0 on the Richter scale. We ask how well prepared is America for a catastrophe perhaps equal to that occurring now in Japan," Lieberman said.

Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a state that bore the brunt of Katrina’s fury, warned against proposed budget cuts for emergency preparedness as Congress looks for ways to trim America’s mammoth federal deficit.

Every year, FEMA runs disaster response drills in coordination with state and local officials. These dress rehearsals have focused on potential Atlantic hurricanes, Pacific typhoons, and earthquakes along major fault lines in Western and Midwestern states. Last year, the Obama administration canceled a simulated response to a nuclear explosion in an urban area over concerns the mock-disaster would scare away tourists from Las Vegas, Nevada, where the drill was to take place.

FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said his agency can do a better job, but denies any gross deficiencies. He says the agency has learned from Katrina, and places special emphasis on rapid response.

"Disasters don’t always give us warning, don’t always follow a season, and often don’t happen where we have expected to have the worst impacts. We put a lot of emphasis on the first 72 hours [after a disaster strikes]. We think this is a key area. We saw it in Katrina, we have seen it in other disasters. If aid is not reaching the people that need it, if we are not safe and secure, if we are not able to do the search and rescue, if we cannot get the commodities there quick enough, it becomes extremely difficult to change the outcome for those survivors," Fugate said.

Fugate has said the federal government cannot, by itself, respond to every need in the wake of a calamity. But he says FEMA can spearhead an effective response in conjunction with local authorities, private organizations, and the combined efforts of ordinary citizens.

After being roundly lambasted as slow an ineffective after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA has more recently been praised by local officials in Tennessee and elsewhere for proactive responses to major floods and other natural disasters.