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Wednesday, December 16, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Report Says Fema Wasn't Ready For Hurricane Andrew

Miami Herald

MIAMI - The Federal Emergency Management Agency was unprepared for the ferocity of Hurricane Andrew and may not be prepared for the next big disaster unless the agency is reorganized, a U.S. General Accounting Office report says.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, also found that the federal government waited too long to respond in South Florida and failed to learn from mistakes it made in previous disasters.

"The U.S. is not prepared for big disasters," according to an interim briefing on the still-secret GAO report.

These are some of the solutions the GAO is considering: giving the military a broader disaster role and making FEMA part of the Pentagon, the White House or another federal office.

FEMA officials would not discuss the preliminary findings, and GAO officials said they couldn't talk about the investigation until the final report is released next year.

Shortly after Andrew hit South Florida and Hurricane Iniki struck Hawaii, Congress asked the GAO to study the federal government's response.

GAO investigators fanned out to Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii and Washington, D.C., interviewing dozens of federal, state and local disaster managers before briefing members of Congress and disaster experts on the preliminary findings.

In Florida, the GAO found that emergency planners were themselves victims and that the state quickly became overwhelmed by the magnitude of the storm. South Florida was forced to wait for help because the federal government has no plan to respond when states can't specify the kinds of assistance they need.

"Consequently, basic needs, such as food, water, shelter and health care were slow to arrive - increasing the stress on thousands of South Florida residents," the GAO paper says.

When the storm hit the coast, FEMA put a series of federal agencies on alert, named a coordinator for the disaster and waited for requests from the state. But the requests never came.

By declaring a state of emergency the morning of the storm, Gov. Lawton Chiles thought he was mobilizing the federal response team.

He was wrong. South Florida waited days for federal help.

FEMA was more aggressive in Louisiana and Hawaii, where the agency offered help without receiving specific requests, the paper says.

The GAO also sifted through its old investigations of FEMA and found that previous warnings had gone unheeded. Nearly two years ago, the GAO warned that states may not be able to handle cataclysmic disasters and that the federal government should take over when they strike.

In recent weeks, GAO investigators have been briefing congressional aides and disaster experts and asking them for ways to improve FEMA and the federal government's response effort.

Some say the agency should be abolished. Others want to make the Pentagon responsible for disaster aid. Others say the president should appoint a "disaster czar."

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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