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Praise All Around For N.C. Response To Ophelia

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Ophelia was no Katrina.

But in a post-Katrina world, the hurricane's mere existence was enough to provoke a pumped-up state and federal response.

"They were very prepared, and possibly overprepared for this," East Carolina University political scientist Carmine Scavo said Friday as Ophelia cleared the Outer Banks after doing considerably less damage than officials initially feared it might.

"I really do believe that overpreparedness will be the rule in the future, at least for hurricanes where we know what the damage might be and what we can do about it," he added.



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Gov. Mike Easley declared a state of emergency last Saturday -- three full days before the outer bands of Category 1 Ophelia began blowing onto the state's southeastern coast.

And a day before the storm approached, 300 National Guard members were sent to eastern North Carolina and 200 Federal Emergency Management Agency workers were in the state. In an unusual move, Washington sent a Coast Guard admiral in to serve as the "principal federal official" should the storm do extensive damage.

Coming just two weeks after a sluggish government mobilization that saw New Orleans descend into chaos and despair, there was nothing but praise for the response in North Carolina.

"They've been on top of everything that we've asked for," said Allen Smith, emergency services director in coastal Carteret County.

By Friday, FEMA's designated principal federal official, Rear Adm. Brian Peterman was headed out the state and the agency was beginning to demobilize its workforce, which topped out at 474 people.

Easley and FEMA's onsite coordinator for Ophelia said storm's slow progress -- it arrived Tuesday afternoon and didn't head out to sea until late Thursday -- gave federal and state officials more time to prepare.

"The good news is that we were able to marshal more forces," joked Shelley Boone, the Raleigh-based FEMA team leader. "The bad news was that the waiting was about to kill us."

Easley praised FEMA's assistance -- even if the storm's impact turned out to be somewhat anticlimactic.

"I think the federal response has been good," he said. "Everything we've asked them for, they've given us. This is pretty much the usual response we get."

The relationship between Raleigh and Washington sometimes turns sour after the storm, when FEMA decides how much money the federal government will kick in to recovery efforts.

Easley said federal, state and local workers were traveling the coast Friday to arrive at estimates of damage from the storm.

North Carolina's storm response has been tested repeatedly in the last decade by large hurricanes such as Fran in 1996, Floyd in 1999 and Isabel in 2003.

And Easley is a storm veteran. He keeps a home in the coastal town of Southport -- a place often in the crosshairs of coastal storms -- and has dealt with a number of coastal hurricanes since taking office in 2001.

Political observers have long noted the Democrat's comfort in crisis settings. The post-disaster helicopter flyover, followed by an on-the-ground meeting with local officials to offer reassurance and support, has become a staple Easley event, seen after hurricanes, tornadoes and ice storms.

On Thursday, clad in a polo shirt embroidered with his name, Easley choppered to Wilmington for a recovery briefing, shaking hands with old friends and cautioning officials not to reopen a small local bridge until they get engineers to examine it.

"He's someone who has a tremendous amount of experience in dealing with these things," said Andy Taylor, a political expert at N.C. State University in Raleigh.

All the post-Katrina attention being paid to disaster response plays to Easley's strength, Taylor said.

"People all over the government are highly sensitized to their response to natural disaster. Gov. Easley is no different," he said.

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