The new acting director of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency today pledged to intensify efforts to find more permanent housing for the tens of thousands of Hurricane Katrina survivors now in shelters.
“We’re going to get those people out of the shelters, and we’re going to move and get them the help they need,” David Paulison said in his first public comments since taking the job.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff introduced Paulison as the Bush administration tried to deflect criticism for the sluggish initial federal response to the hurricane and its disastrous aftermath.
US President George Bush planned to address the US on Thursday evening from Louisiana, where he will be monitoring recovery efforts, the White House announced today.
Chertoff said that while clean-up, relief and reconstruction from Katrina is now the government’s top priority, the administration would not let down its guard on other potential dangers.
“The world is not going to stop moving because we are very focused on Katrina,” Chertoff said.
Paulison, named to the post on Tuesday, said he was busy “getting brought up to speed”.
He replaced Michael Brown, who resigned yesterday, three days after being removed from being the top onsite federal official in charge of the government’s response.
A Miami native who formerly was head of the US Fire Administration, part of FEMA, Paulison was an emergency worker who responded to Hurricane Andrew when it raked South Florida in 1992.
Paulison said Bush called him last night and “thanked me for coming on board”.
Bush promised that he would have “the full support of the federal government”, Paulison said.
Chertoff said the relief operation had entered a new phase.
Initially, he said, the most important priority was evacuating people, getting them to safety, providing food, water and medical care.
“Now we have to reconstitute the communities that have been devastated,” Chertoff added.
He said the federal government would look increasingly to state and local officials for guidance on rebuilding the devastated communities along the Gulf Coast.
“The federal government can’t drive permanent solutions down the throats of state and local officials,” Chertoff said. “I don’t think anyone should envision a situation in which they’re going to take a back seat. They’re going to take a front seat,” he said.
Chertoff said that teams of federal auditors were being dispatched to the stricken areas to make sure that billions of dollars worth of government contracts were being properly spent.
“We want to get aid to the people who need it quickly … but we have a responsibility as stewards of the public money,” Chertoff said.
“We’re going to cut through red tape,” he said, “but we’re not going to cut through laws and rules that govern ethics”.
Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said that some military aircraft and other equipment may be able to move out of the Gulf Coast soon.
“We’ve got to the point where most if not all of the search and rescue is completed,” said Rumsfeld, who is attending a Nato meeting in Berlin. “Some helicopters can undoubtedly be moved out over the period ahead.”
He also said there is a very large surplus of hospital beds in the region, so those could also be decreased. The USS Comfort hospital ship arrived near the Mississippi coast late last week.
Rumsfeld added that nothing will be moved out of the area without the authorisation of the two states’ governors, the military leaders there and the president.