Craig Fugate, who heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), says that comparing the tornadoes to Katrina is “comparing apples to oranges…each disaster is different, and you respond to the disaster you’re dealing with.” As a matter of meteorology, Mr Fugate has a point. Katrina affected an area roughly the size of Great Britain and made landfall six days after it formed. Tornadoes are smaller; they form and die more quickly. Gregory Carbin, the warning-co-ordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Centre, says that last week’s storms were of a once-in-a-century severity, and afforded some of those hit as little as 20 minutes’ warning.
As a political matter, however, the comparison is hard to avoid. FEMA came under withering criticism for its slow and poorly co-ordinated response to Katrina, particularly to the flooding of New Orleans. Its performance this time was swifter and surer. The agency had emergency response teams in place in Hoover and Tuscaloosa by April 29th, working in co-ordination with Alabama’s emergency operations centre around 55 miles south of Birmingham. Barack Obama declared major disasters in Alabama on April 28th, in Mississippi on the 29th, Georgia on the 30th and Tennessee and Arkansas after that, making federal funds available to individuals, state and local governments.
By Monday several cabinet members as well as the president had visited Alabama. FEMA expects to move into a joint field office, housing all federal responders, by week’s end; it too will remain open as long as necessary.
Just what that means is unclear: rebuilding may take years. It will also be expensive in a region that can ill afford it: Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi were all projecting budget shortfalls for next year already. Clean-up costs alone in Jefferson County, home to Alabama’s largest city, may exceed $400m. The only consoling news, says Mr Carbin, is that “we know what happened is pretty rare.” Unfortunately, while an unusually large number of tornadoes struck this April, on average May is the more active month.