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VOL. 123 | NO. 28 | Monday, February 11, 2008

Government Gets Involved in Storm Recovery Effort

By Bill Dries

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HOLE IN THE ROOF: U.S. Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., center, looks up at where part of the roof of the Pinnacle Airlines hangar was before Tuesday's storms. Tanner was along for the West Tennessee part of Gov. Phil Bredesen's survey of storm damage. -- Photo By Bill Dries

Two days before a swarm of tornadoes descended on Memphis and the region, emergency responders in Memphis and Shelby County began making plans in case Tuesday's approaching storm spawned tornadoes.

In the days that followed, government leaders have become involved in a recovery that can't hope to repair the damage done by the loss of three lives in Memphis and 52 other lives across a five-state region.

But several of the elected leaders were quick to say that the aftermath of such disasters is the place where government can make a difference. Still other leaders deliberately have downplayed their role and let emergency officials do much of the talking publicly and privately.

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton said nothing in the way of complaint but did fidget a bit the day after the storms at a press conference at local emergency management headquarters near the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

Every elected official present at that press conference except Shelby County Board of Commissioners members James Harvey and Sidney Chism took a turn at the microphone.

"The response to this crisis by the director of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the president of the United States has been in sharp contrast to what we saw in New Orleans with (Hurricane) Katrina," said Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen during his turn as Republican and fellow Tennessean U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a staunch defender of the White House, stood nearby. "I think it shows that government can learn. ... Sometimes people don't understand how important government is."

Work to be done

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen was in town Thursday surveying the damage along with other government officials including FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison.

Paulison and Bredesen, as well as U.S. Rep. John Tanner of Union City, Tenn., stood Thursday beneath what used to be part of the roof of a Pinnacle Airlines hangar at Memphis International Airport - nothing above to block a bright sun and blue skies.

"The next week or two is when we go out there and try to get some money into the hands of people to begin the rebuilding process," Bredesen said.

That process began Friday with a formal assessment of property damage that goes toward the state's application for federal disaster assistance.

Bredesen's Thursday visit to Memphis completed a two-day survey of storm damage across the state.

"It's all exciting for the first 36 hours. There's a lot of stuff that will happen in the next couple of weeks. But then the spotlight goes somewhere else." Bredesen said. "We still have all of these families that have to put their lives back together and rebuild their homes."

Federal response

It will be Paulison's job to make the recommendation on the level of disaster assistance in the declaration President George W. Bush is likely to sign some time this week.

Paulison, who was not FEMA administrator during Hurricane Katrina, is a former Miami firefighter, paramedic and fire chief. Without knowing of Cohen's comments earlier about the controversial federal effort in New Orleans, Paulison defended the president's commitment during the five years he's worked with the administration.

"He's got a heart for this type of stuff," Paulison told The Daily News. "It really gets to him. He really gets emotional when he sees people who've lost their homes or lost family members."

It is Paulison's advice that will be crucial in the level of federal aid Bush makes available to the area and the state. There are two parts of a White House disaster declaration - help in repairing public facilities and helping with the cost of repairing homes and businesses. Both parts are technical, involving formulas, percentages and paperwork.

"If there are enough homes destroyed, then we can provide individual assistance," Paulison said. "Those people who own homes who either don't have enough insurance or have no insurance, we can assist them up to $28,800 to help them get back on their feet. It doesn't make them whole but it will start to get them back to some sort of normal lives."

Herenton later said the assessment that started Friday is critical as bills come due for local government as well as homeowners and business owners who will all pay out of their own wallets up front and then do the paperwork to hopefully get reimbursed later.

"It's one thing to come out and to assess the situation. It's another thing to get the resources, to get the work done, so that we can restore the infrastructure, open those businesses and help people to restore their homes," he said when asked about Hickory Hill, the area of Memphis hit hardest by the storms. "We're providing security and then we are revamping infrastructure and assessing damage every day."

Bredesen talked with Herenton and Pinnacle Airlines CEO Phil Trenary as workers in a cherry picker a few yards away dislodged large, errant chunks of insulation from the rafters of the 45,000-square-foot hangar. The airline was forced to cancel flights Wednesday out of Memphis and shift them to Knoxville, Tenn., and Fort Wayne, Ind.

The Pinnacle hangar cleanup gave way Friday to construction work. The third of the hangar that lost a section of roof in Tuesday's storm was curtained off.

"We really had to do a lot of rebuilding," Trenary said. "(Thursday) is our first quasi-normal day. We should be 98 percent in a couple of more days and this place will actually look better than it did, in two weeks."

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