FEMA prepared for federal response to Hurricane Matthew

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The White House said scientists are telling them Hurricane Matthew is likely to be the largest and most powerful storm to hit the United States in about a decade. As Matthew is about to hit Florida, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is preparing for the worst.

FEMA has been involved in big weather events in recent years such as Superstorm Sandy back in 2012. But when many Americans think of the agency, some may remember the failed response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

More than ten years later, FEMA wants to let everyone know that it has overhauled its response efforts and believes people will see that in the aftermath of Matthew.

President Barack Obama has signed an emergency declaration in Florida and South Carolina authorizing federal agencies to take action.

"The preparations that we have been making in advance of the storm are indicative of just how serious we think it is,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “That is why you have seen such a forceful response mobilized by federal government even in advance of the storm making landfall.”

FEMA’s headquarters for the federal preparations is in Southwest D.C. Inside is a buzz of activity at the National Response Coordination Center where representatives from all federal government agencies gather to coordinate logistics and plan with state and local governments. They have been at work here and around the country for days.

“We have had boots on the ground and several personnel throughout Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina for several days co-located with their state counterparts who we are supporting,” said Rafael Lamitre, FEMA’s Director of Public Affairs. “We also have rapid response teams that we have sent from various places around the country to various areas in and around the potentially affected areas.”

FEMA was criticized for a slow and ineffective response after Hurricane Katrina, but said since then the agency has undergone a major culture change. Now it pre-positions resources near impacted areas and has set up two staging areas for Hurricane Matthew – in Georgia and North Carolina.

“We have a clarity of mission now,” Lamitre said. “We now have built up an institution where we have rapid response teams able to go out. We have a philosophy of going big, going early into disasters.”

FEMA Corps members are loading up supplies that include thousands of cots to send to areas impacted by this storm. The agency said it has also prepped 444,000 liters of water and more than 500,000 meals for states who might request them.

“It doesn’t mean that any response or recovery is ever going to be perfect, but it does mean that we have a more holistic, real view of what a disaster response should look like,” said Lamitre.

One other new resource since Katrina is the FEMA Mobile App. The free download has real-time information on shelters open near you and safety reminders and checklists to survive natural disasters. You can also get National Weather Service alerts for up to five counties. That makes it helpful not just for people in affected areas, but anyone whose loved ones are living there as well.