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New Orleans after Katrina David Trissell, GC of the Federal Emergency Management Administration, admits that “mistakes were made” in the agency’s response to Hurricane Katrina, but that FEMA has learned its lessons. One ongoing result of last fall’s triple whammy of storms (Katrina, Rita, and Wilma): more work for Trissell and his staff of 66 lawyers. He estimates that FEMA’s litigation load has gone up 50 percent, and Freedom of Information Act requests have risen 75 percent, while special congressional investigations have further occupied his staff. An Oklahoma native, Trissell started his career at the U.S. Department of Justice in 1992, joined FEMA as a litigator three years later, and became the agency’s GC in 2004. Despite the flubbed Katrina response, Trissell told reporter Jill Nawrocki that he still believes in the ability of government to help people. Q: In November you made your first trip to the area hit by Katrina. What was it like? A: You can take a helicopter up, but driving gave me the perspective of being in a car for hours and not seeing anything that wasn’t totaled. . . . In [New Orleans's] Ninth Ward, there’s nothing but rows and rows of damaged homes. . . . You couldn’t see streets because houses were still on them. It was just miles and miles of devastation. Q: Did you consider going down sooner? A: There was enough for me to handle up here [in Washington, D.C.], and I didn’t want to get in the way. We had deployed four or five attorneys who were experienced [in initial response] and knew what they were doing. When [they first went down], we had an immediate need to get ice and water, and [they were] looking at contracts to do that. We needed to get debris moved out, so [they were] doing that. I went down when I did because the schedule worked out best. Q: What sorts of legal issues has FEMA faced in the aftermath of Katrina? A: Before we can go on private property, we need right of entry. We dealt with that a lot, particularly in New Orleans, with debris removal when folks needed access to roads. [There were] liability issues, too. For instance, debris to us may be a trailer sitting in the middle of the road, but to someone else, that debris may be their home. If we do something [with the debris], we can be held liable for it later. [We also dealt with] environmental issues � we’ve got to work on mobile home lease sites [to house displaced residents] and make sure there aren’t any environmental issues there. Some people � there are two cases I can think of � have sued [FEMA in past disasters] under the Endangered Species Act [because of where the agency placed homes]. We also have run-of-the-mill slip-and-fall injury cases when someone working for FEMA gets hurt in the field. We haven’t had to deal with it yet, but … tens of thousands of people are giving their private information to the government [for assistance]. The question is, how do we protect that information while still getting [it] out to other parties [and agencies] that need it? A very small percentage of our case load is affirmative litigation. Unfortunately, when you’re giving out a lot of funds, there are always people who are going to get it who are not entitled. Q: How does your office prepare when news of an approaching hurricane � or any natural disaster � is announced? A: It mirrors the procedure [of] the agency [as a whole]. Tornadoes are harder, because [there isn't] advance lead. Hurricanes are probably the easiest to prepare for because you know they’re coming. They give you advance notice. Q: If hurricanes are so easy to prepare for, how do you account for the government’s delayed response to Katrina? A: FEMA really doesn’t become proactive until we have a disaster proclamation. The president did a prelandfall declaration in this case, but that was the exception, rather than the rule. We go through states and through local [government] to find out if they’re ready and if they have shelters ready. We provide grants for preparedness training, for whatever [state and local governments] need to do in disasters. [This includes] evacuation routes and communications. Some states are much more mature in this � Florida knows hurricanes and knows how to deal with them. Q: Many critics blamed FEMA’s slow response to Katrina on former director Michael Brown’s limited experience with disaster response. How would you characterize the job Brown did during his time at FEMA, first as GC and later as agency head? A: [As GC], he was very supportive in giving us additional resources [like extra staff] to run our office. He would do what he could to make sure those resources were available. [As agency head, he] did as much as [he] could. Everyone at some level was overwhelmed by [Katrina]. We [were dealing with] something that had never happened in American history before � basically, a metro area [was] completely wiped out. . . . [Yes], he was head of [the International Arabian Horse Association], but that was ten years ago. The fact is, he was an undersecretary of emergency preparedness and response, he was made a GC, and he [became] head of the agency. He has experience. Q: What do you hope your legacy will be as general counsel of FEMA? A: There will always be floods, and there will always be hurricanes. When I’m gone, I hope the people [here] continue to come to work thinking they can do some good.

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