Members of local FEMA team upset with response

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(view as multiple pages)By Marc Fortier
Staff writer

BEVERLY The Beverly-based FEMA team is expected back from Mississippi today, but some members think they are coming home too soon.

Gerry Giunta, second-in-command of the team that spent much of the past week searching for survivors in Mississippi, said some members are frustrated with the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinated its rescue and relief efforts and wanted to stay longer.

"It's frustrating for the guys," Giunta said via cell phone yesterday. "We would have loved to be able to stay and help the people of Mississippi more. They were great people and they lost everything. But that's not our decision to make. It comes down from up above."

He said the team was surprised to be sent home so soon after their arrival. They left Beverly on Aug. 30, but because of the travel time, they didn't arrive in Waveland, Miss., for two days. On Monday, after only four days of work, they were told to go home. FEMA teams are being called in from California to replace the departing units.

Giunta also said it was disappointing to have only 35 members of the regional team sent down south, when the team has more than 80 members.

"So many people were left behind in Beverly," he said. "We could have used every individual we could get down there. They supported us from back in Beverly, but we missed having them with us."

FEMA has been under fire in recent days for what critics have labeled as a slow, confused and ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina. Some are even calling for the firing of FEMA chief Michael Brown.

Giunta, a Salem fire captain, was one of four local men who were part of the regional team sent to Mississippi. The others are team leader Mark Foster of Beverly, Ipswich firefighter Lee Prentiss and West Peabody paramedic John Morrissey.

The Beverly-based FEMA team spent most of its time doing house-to-house searches in residential areas of Mississippi's Hancock County. They found one man alive who had ridden out the storm in a sailboat, but they also found a few people who didn't survive.

Giunta said the regional FEMA team was somewhat isolated from television and newspaper reports, but they did hear about how much heat FEMA's director has been taking. He said members of the local team are similarly disturbed by the situation.

"It's upsetting from our level because people see us with FEMA shirts on," he said. "We're doing everything we can within our power. What happens at the bureaucratic level has nothing to do with us."

Foster, who has been with the Beverly-based FEMA team since its formation more than a decade ago, said it is understandable that some members of his team are frustrated. But he thinks FEMA did the best it could in a difficult situation.

"This is a gigantic natural disaster of biblical proportions," he said. "I doubt that pretty much, even if we had anticipated something this big, that we could have responded in a manner everyone would be happy with."

Though much of the team's time was spent traveling, Foster said it was activated for eight days, the same amount of time it spent down in New York City following the World Trade Center attacks.

"In a disaster, you normally go down for a week to 10 days, and then you go back home for a couple weeks, and then you go back for a week to 10 days," he said. "It doesn't make sense to have people work around the clock for more than seven to 10 days.

"The guys want to stay forever, but I think you have to realize that probably for the first four or five days, most of these guys had three to four hours of sleep every night. We also brought all our food and water with us, and that started to dry up."

Besides, Foster said, there were replacement teams waiting to fill in for the departing Beverly team. "They had teams in Houston 300 miles away doing nothing," he said.

He said the small, 35-member Beverly team was a typical hurricane response team. Such teams are supposed to be lighter so they can move more quickly. "It's a more mobile configuration," he said. With the World Trade Center, Beverly sent an 80-member team because the work involved heavier building collapse work.

Foster said FEMA could have sent two smaller teams from Beverly, but even then, his group doesn't have enough search dogs, engineers and other key people to make up two separate teams. The Beverly group also doesn't have enough vehicles to travel as two separate teams.

"It's not that easy to reconfigure," he said. "Under emergency conditions, we could. But there were teams ready to leave in California."

The local FEMA team is expected back in Beverly this afternoon. Foster said members of the regional team could be sent back down south in the coming weeks and months to help with the relief effort, but it's too early to tell.