Weathering the storm

People with a low opinion of the federal government like to pass around jokes that have the punch line: "I'm from the federal government and I'm here to help." President Ronald Reagan famously called them "the 10 most frightening words in the English language."

People with a low opinion of the federal government like to pass around jokes that have the punch line: "I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help." President Ronald Reagan famously called them "the 10 most frightening words in the English language."

But when things are really bad, they are words people want to hear.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency — and by extension, the federal government — got a pretty bad rap in 2005 for its response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In fairness, the government was faced with a truly massive task. But public perceptions of the response didn’t do much to bolster the government’s reputation.

Now, almost six years later, eyes are on both the agency and the government to see how well they manage the federal response to the devastation caused by what some news agencies are calling the deadliest rash of tornadoes since the Great Depression.

And like it or not, in this country — where there are plenty of people who roll their eyes at the mere mention of "the federal government" — the performance of a few federal agencies can reflect on feds everywhere.

But so far, so good. It appears that someone, somewhere, did learn a lot from Katrina.

As of April 29 — pretty much immediately after the events — FEMA already had staff on the ground in at least six of the affected states. These included FEMA liaison officers, at least one regional incident management team and three national incident management teams. The agency also had established an incident support base in Alabama to move drinking water, tarps and other supplies to needed areas, and it had deployed a mobile emergency response support team to provide voice, data and video communications.

And that’s just FEMA.

The Health and Human Services Department, also as of April 29, had activated a logistics advance team, a disaster mortuary operational response assessment team, an incident response coordination team to provide public health and medical support, and a disaster medical team to provide rapid-response medical care.

Other agencies had deployed personnel as well. NOAA sent people into the region to measure the storm damage. The Defense Department sent staff to the area to coordinate the use of DOD resources to support response and recovery efforts. And President Barack Obama arrived in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to examine the damage alongside FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.

Fugate was slated to return to stricken areas in Mississippi and Alabama two days later, along with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, and Small Business Administration Administrator Karen Mills.

The bottom line is that so far this time the federal government — you guys — are looking pretty good.

With the current mood in Congress, which reconvenes this week, it couldn’t hurt.

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