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FEMA chief: Better catastrophe planning needed

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The top emergency response manager in the nation told congressional leaders Tuesday that authorities could become much more effective in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, cautioned a panel of U.S. senators that such improvements would not happen overnight.

"One of the things that we have not done a very good job at is catastrophic disaster planning. We have to become better at that, which requires every agency sitting at a table wading through the minutia that would be in front of us. And it's going to take time," Allbaugh said.

The FEMA director recommended that all emergency authorities, such as police and fire departments and first responders, have an established communications system through which they can easily talk to each other.

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In the longer run, Allbaugh said he would work with all 50 states to review their disaster response plans and make sure they can handle terrorist threats.

Allbaugh was quick to add that burdensome requirements would not be imposed from the top down.

"I don't want to be the 300-pound gorilla that forces stuff on states," said Allbaugh, a former deputy transportation secretary in his native Oklahoma.

The FEMA director cautioned, however, that national authorities must aggressively face new security challenges in the wake of the terror attacks on New York and Washington. "Our greatest lesson is to lean as far forward out of the foxhole as we possibly can. There is a need for the entire federal government to rethink how we approach everyday life," Allbaugh told the hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Sen. Hillary Clinton, a Democrat from New York, praised the recovery efforts but urged FEMA to work harder to help merchants near the World Trade Center ruins that have struggled in recent weeks.

"Many businesses are closing near ground zero," Clinton said. "They are cut off from their customers and not in a position to obtain loans."

"It is a problem we are going to deal with," Allbaugh vowed.

Overall, the senators and Allbaugh spoke well of the heroic efforts of all the men and women who responded during the crisis, from the New York fire and police departments to special FEMA rescue and recovery crews, flown in from all parts of the country.

"I think everyone did exactly what they were supposed to do. The federal response plan was put in motion. Everyone worked shoulder to shoulder, pulling not only their weight but often times someone else's weight and we made it work," Allbaugh said.


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