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Federal Government Steps Up Disaster Response Efforts Since Hurricane Katrina


Here's a snapshot of Florida five days after Hurricane Irma struck. Officials in the hard-hit western Keys are getting ready for residents to return. In southwestern Florida, recovery is also slow. On the east coast, though, Florida Power & Light says nearly everyone will have power back by Sunday. And in much of the state, life is starting to return to normal. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, so far Floridians are giving a lot of the credit to FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This is Del Campo Latin Food & Cafe in Homestead, Fla. It's south of Miami. Yesterday, the TV was tuned to the live pictures of President Trump arriving for a visit in hard-hit southwestern Florida. But the sound was off, and the lunchtime crowd wasn't really paying attention. Still, among the men sitting at the counter, the attitude toward Trump seemed to be positive.

ABEL BRIAN: He's all about leadership. You know, start from the top.

KASTE: Abel Brian says he's been hearing some good things about government from friends and family who suffered hurricane damage.

BRIAN: The government's proactively, you know, working towards making things, you know, easier. FEMA is even more accessible.

KASTE: You hear that a lot. People seem surprised by how easy it is to reach FEMA by phone or Internet to start their claims. There's also a sense of surprise at the relative lack of chaos on the ground just a few days after a storm like Irma. Part of the credit goes to the much-improved building standards. Some of the guys sitting at this counter are contractors, and they say the houses are built much better now, especially compared to the structures that were wiped out in this neighborhood back in 1992 during Hurricane Andrew.

But that doesn't account for how quickly basic services are coming back online. A few miles away, Nilo Sierra has just come back to inspect his house after the mandatory evacuation.

NILO SIERRA: And the power was up within a day and has been consistently - everything's back to normal, even gas trucks. You see the gas trucks on the road with the troopers as escorts. So I think it's been pretty good.

KASTE: He brought 25 gallons of gas back with him, but it turns out he doesn't need it. Nearby gas stations are open now, and you hardly have to wait for a pump anymore. And with power and gas in place, everything else in this recovery gets easier.

RICH SERINO: You know, administrations change, but the lessons learned don't change.

KASTE: That's Rich Serino. He was deputy administrator at FEMA during the Obama administration. And his boss was Craig Fugate, a Floridian who brought a lot of his state's emergency know-how to the federal system, especially as it tried to rebuild itself after the disastrous handling of Katrina 12 years ago. And what's interesting about FEMA these days is that it seems to have become less politicized. Alumni of the Obama era generally have good things to say about the people who are running things now under Trump. There's a sense of common lessons learned.

SERINO: How people are able to lead up, to lead down, to lead across and beyond, and to develop those relationships, develop that unity of effort, develop the opportunities that - people have that generosity of spirit and have those relationships. And during a time of crisis, we don't see that - we don't see ego. And we're not blaming each other.

KASTE: Not blaming each other, not getting political is key for an agency like FEMA, which has to rely on state agencies and local power companies to get the job done. And if that means that President Trump now gets credit for capacities that FEMA built up under Presidents Bush and Obama, well, that's not something that people like Serino are going to worry about.

And in Florida right now, FEMA is popular. This is Kimberly Kuhn, who lives in the Florida Keys, where the storm was far more destructive than Miami. She's recalling the last time she had an experience with FEMA.

KIMBERLY KUHN: Amazing. They were driving around with food, giving us hot food, you know? So, yeah, it was very nice. They have water on the ground. They were the - you know, being one of the first responders, you know, if I didn't leave I knew FEMA would be there.

KASTE: Now she and her husband, Dennis, are packing up their SUV with the stuff that they evacuated with. They've got a big old dog in there and a bird cage in among all the bags. They're heading back down to their home in the Keys. And Dennis says they already know what they're going to find, again, thanks to the federal government.

K. KUHN: We've seen...

DENNIS KUHN: We've seen pictures.

KASTE: Oh, have you?

D. KUHN: NOAA has pictures out, the whole island chain. You can go and look at your house, look at your car, look at your boats.

KASTE: Really?

D. KUHN: Yeah.

KASTE: So aerial or satellites or...

D. KUHN: Yeah. And they just built it. And it's brand-new. It came online yesterday with the whole Keys.

KASTE: And as they hit the road, he calls out this final thought - we love Donald Trump. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.