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U.S. Report: Emergency Services Prepare For Hurricane Bonnie

Washington, 27 August 1998 (RFE/RL) -- While residents along America's eastern coast braced for Hurricane Bonnie Wednesday, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had actually been at work behind the scenes for several days preparing for the impact of the storm.

FEMA was created in 1979 and is the U.S. government agency responsible for the nation's emergency management system. Its charter mission is to: "reduce loss of life and property and protect the nation's critical infrastructure from all types of hazards through a comprehensive, risk-based, emergency management program of mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery."

According to information posted on the agency's web site, FEMA prepares for emergencies and disasters, responds to and recovers from them, rebuilds, and determine future effects. The agency employees about 2,400 people full-time and has over 7,000 temporary disaster assistance employees who are ready to be called upon at a moment's notice.

In the case of Hurricane Bonnie -- a storm which is more than 320 kilometers wide with sustained winds of about 185 kilometers per hour -- the agency took several preventative and protective steps in coordination with state and local emergencies teams.

On Sunday, August 23, FEMA activated a 24-hour operation center in the southern city of Atlanta, Georgia to monitor the path of Hurricane Bonnie.

When it looked certain Bonnie was heading toward the U.S., advance emergency response teams were quickly deployed to several cities up and down the east coast.

By Wednesday morning, FEMA helped coordinate the opening of 81 storm shelters across the southern state of North Carolina which were already housing about 8,600 people who were urged to evacuate their homes. In South Carolina, 46 shelters were opened, protecting nearly 8,000 people.

Also by Wednesday, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army had 18 mobile feeding units in place in North Carolina and four in South Carolina. Thirty-three more such vehicles were standing-by outside the storm area.

In addition, FEMA helped coordinate the deployment of the U.S. Mobile Emergency Response Systems organization which provides communications and other support for federal ground operations in disaster areas. The agency also cooperated with the U.S. Department of Energy to prepare personnel for immediate deployment to certain areas if help is needed to quickly restore power.

Other federal steps taken to prepare for the hurricane include the U.S. Health and Human Services putting two disaster medical assistance teams on alert, the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration deploying six people to North Carolina, Virginia and South Carolina to monitor toxic sites that might be affected by the storm, and the activation of two of FEMA's Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces.

Val Bunting, Director of Emergency Information and Media Affairs at FEMA, told RFE/RL that the organization is "definitely ready" for Hurricane Bonnie.

Says Bunting: "We know the number of personnel we are going to have to send into various areas, and we kind of know where the most damage may occur once the storm has passed. We will then be getting people and resources into that area."

She adds that her organization's number one goal is to prevent the loss of life. As a result, she says FEMA works very hard on helping local and state authorities evacuate people from danger areas and ensure the environment is safe for residents to return.