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Pickering assesses local relief efforts

U.S. Third District Rep. Chip Pickering visited BrookhavenFriday to gauge relief efforts and to discuss ways to speedassistance to citizens impacted by Hurricane Katrina.

“I just wanted to come and see if there was any way I couldhelp,” the Republican congressman said as he arrived at thecourthouse Friday morning.

Speaking with an assortment of city and county officials andresidents, Pickering said his office had been heavily active indamage assessment and hurricane relief efforts. However, he wantedto meet officials personally to address any issues they mayhave.

Mayor Bob Massengill and Bobby Watts, president of the board ofsupervisors, briefed Pickering on local efforts and expressed someconcern about the lack of response to date from the FederalEmergency Management Agency. Although FEMA representatives havecontacted officials, they are “coming and going,” officialssaid.

An agency representative has been working with Lincoln CountyCivil Defense Director Clifford Galey. However, help from thatrepresentative is primarily to restore public services and assessdamage to public facilities, Galey said.

A FEMA representative to assist individuals in their losses isgreatly needed, officials said.

“We really need FEMA to open an office so people will know whenand where they are,” Massengill said.

Pickering pledged his support to see that done.

“I will work with you all to get a full-time FEMA representativeand to get an office open here,” he said.

The congressmen also asked officials to be patient with theagency.

“To be honest, their whole system is overwhelmed right now,” hesaid.

Pickering said after the relief efforts are complete, federalofficials will have to take a hard look at the agency to see how tostreamline it to make it more efficient and better able to respondquickly in a time of crisis.

Although it may appear delayed, the agency is also planning tohave thousands of other agents in the field by Monday, Pickeringsaid.

“By some time next week, we should have that permanent FEMApresence,” he said.

FEMA officials have been urging those with personal storm-damageto call 1-800-621-FEMA or to register online for assistance atwww.FEMA.gov. However, officials said, the telephone line has beenswamped and computer access to the Web site is extremelylimited.

FEMA is trying to hire 10,000 employees this weekend to assiston the agency hotline, Pickering said. He doubted it would happen,though, because of the necessary background checks involved.

It was possible, he said, to expand availability to the Web sitein the next few days. He said his office was in negotiations withseveral private satellite and computer companies that have offeredto donate the hardware to establish a computer communicationscenter.

“That might be the best way,” Pickering said. “I don’t know whenthey’ll be able to hire those 10,000 workers.”