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President Obama aims for FEMA action

With Hurricane Sandy battering the East Coast only a week before the election, President Obama has a lot riding on the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which he pledged to improve during his campaign four years ago.

Hours before Sandy made landfall on Monday, Obama declared in a news conference at the White House that he is “confident that we’re ready” for the massive storm now inflicting widespread damage along the East Coast. Obama praised FEMA for working in concert with state and local officials to stock food, water, and generators for distribution as needed.

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“The conversations that I’ve had with all the governors indicate that at this point, there are no unmet needs,” Obama said.

Meanwhile, Republican challenger Mitt Romney encouraged supporters to donate to the Red Cross, a nongovernmental organization. His staff began collecting storm relief supplies at campaign offices in North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Virginia; and the Romney campaign bus was repurposed as a delivery vehicle.

Romney has suggested that the federal government should cede more responsibility for emergency management to state governments and private groups.

FEMA’s disaster relief work can bolster a president’s leadership credentials or make his administration appear inept. The agency’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 delivered a blow to President George W. Bush’s reputation for crisis management and became a campaign talking point for Obama.

In New Orleans on the two-year anniversary of Katrina, early in the Democratic primary, Obama said he would appoint an experienced disaster relief coordinator to head FEMA for a six-year term to shield him from politics. The FEMA director under Bush, Michael Brown, was commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association before his appointment.

The new director would report directly to the president, Obama added in 2007. Bush placed FEMA within the Department of Homeland Security after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Once elected, Obama tapped Craig Fugate, the Republican director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, to lead FEMA but did not push for a six-year term or a change in reporting structure.

Under Fugate, FEMA earned praise last spring for swiftly aiding tornado victims throughout the South. Obama toured disaster areas in Alabama less than 48 hours after the tornadoes passed.

But the tornadoes were only part of a series of natural disasters last year — including Hurricane Irene, which flooded parts of New England, and a twister that ripped through Western Massachusetts — that threatened to deplete FEMA’s coffers.

Against that backdrop, Romney made remarks last June during a GOP debate in New Hampshire that some interpreted as a call to eliminate FEMA.

“Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction,” he said. “And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”

On Monday, Romney’s campaign said he has no plan to shut down FEMA.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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