Washington On the eve of the official start of the 2006 hurricane season, the new head of FEMA said Wednesday the agency has learned from its disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina and is "light years ahead of last year" in preparing for major storms.
But Director David Paulison said the public "has to take much greater responsibility" for storm planning and be ready to get through the first three days after a hurricane hits without help.
That way, first responders can concentrate on the elderly, disabled and others who "really need our help," Paulison said.
Paulison, a Miami-Dade fire chief for 10 years, recalled seeing long lines of Floridians waiting for water 12 hours after Hurricane Wilma hit in October, knocking out power to millions in the state.
"This is a pet peeve and I can say this because it's my home state," said Paulison, who still has a home in Broward County. "What I saw was a significant lack of personal preparedness. Everybody should have enough water to get through a couple of days."
Paulison is doing his part to set an example. Last week he and his wife, Kathy, bought hurricane supplies during the tax-free period and picked up a new generator at Wal-Mart. Last year their home lost power for a week.
Paulison, 59, became acting director in October, after Michael Brown resigned in the wake of the Katrina calamity. He has tried to upgrade the agency, hire "the best professionals" with disaster experience to cope with a staff shortage and boost morale among staffers "burned out" by a succession of storms.
Paulison brought in Adm. Harvey Johnson of the Coast Guard, which received high marks during Katrina, as deputy director. He has lured several experienced state officials and hopes to fill 95 percent of the agency's 2,500 positions in the next few weeks.