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Federal disaster chief promises aggressive federal response to wildfires

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's disaster assistance chief promised no repeat of the Hurricane Katrina experience Wednesday, saying "this is a new FEMA" as Washington weighed options to help California wildfire victims.

"We're going to make sure this operation runs as smoothly as possible given the size of this disaster," David Paulison, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said when asked if people who lost homes can expect a more aggressive response than when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in late summer 2005.

Paulison, who was to join other emergency management officials in a Cabinet-level briefing for President Bush later Wednesday, conceded that "things didn't run as smoothly" as necessary during Katrina.

Responding to questions about the availability of sufficient aircraft to spray fire retardant in the afflicted areas, Paulison noted the obstacle that gale force winds were providing. "There's quite a bit of resources on the ground right now. Part of the issue is the winds," he said.

Paulison also said that people who lack paperwork to document their damage claims because they so hurriedly fled their homes should not worry.

"We can work through that," he said. The same thing happened in Katrina."

Bush, who mobilized the federal disaster relief establishment Tuesday, has scheduled a visit to California Thursday.

"He wants to ensure that the state and local governments are getting what they need from the federal government," press secretary Dana Perino told reporters, "and he wants to make sure to deliver a message in person to the victims that he has them in his thoughts and prayers."

To make the trip, Bush is canceling a previously scheduled trip to St. Louis, where he was to deliver remarks on the budget and headline a fundraiser for the national Republican Party.

About a dozen wildfires in California have set ablaze 375,000 acres — 585 square miles — and forecasts call for hotter temperatures and high winds that most expect to dramatically increase the destruction.

Perino also announced that Bush was convening a Cabinet meeting Wednesday morning for a briefing from Paulison and his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. The top federal disaster officials went to California Tuesday night to see what more could be done from Washington and were to address the president and the Cabinet via secure videoconference.

One key question: Will the president declare the afflicted land as federal disaster areas? Such a move would pave the way for the government to provide financial assistance to those who lost their homes and other property. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a letter to Bush late Tuesday asking him to declare a major disaster in California due to the fires.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel noted Wednesday that the administration has already provided individual assistance to people who lost property.

A formal disaster declaration would provide money and services to people whose property has been damaged or destroyed and whose losses arent covered by insurance, the White House said, helping

to provide an array of services, from housing, home repair, medical, moving costs, transportation, storage and other serious needs.

Just before 4 a.m. EDT Tuesday, Bush had declared a federal emergency for seven California counties, a move that will speed disaster-relief efforts. But it will take the major disaster declaration to help victims with property losses.

Ahead of the Cabinet meeting, Bush held a half-hour conference call Tuesday night with several officials involved in the federal effort, with all receiving an initial update from the ground from Chertoff and Paulison.

Chertoff — like Paulison — said that weather conditions were hampering efforts to contain the fires and said top immediate priorities include helping with evacuation and shelter, providing relief for weary firefighters and sending medical teams, said White House spokesman Scott Stanzel.

Perino said the federal government is applying lessons learned from the Katrina relief controversy that deeply damaged Bush's presidency. Such an improved response — mainly in terms of swift communication with state and local officials — has been evident in previous disasters, such as after tornadoes in Kansas and Alabama, and a major bridge collapse in Minnesota, she said.

"Clearly those lessons were learned, and they're being applied," Perino said.

Said Paulison Wednesday: "This is a different organization. We've been putting those in place for the last two years, exercise and training, a change in our philosophy of how we're going to respond."

The FEMA administrator was interviewed on CNN, NBC's "Today" show and CBS's "The Early Show."