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FEMA blasted for 'news' conference

FEMADisasters and AccidentsMeteorological DisastersWildfiresJobs and WorkplaceHurricanes and Tropical Storms

WASHINGTON — No one had any hard questions for the deputy administrator of FEMA, an agency deeply tarnished by its delayed action after Hurricane Katrina, when he held a news conference Tuesday to talk about the California wildfires.

"Are you happy with FEMA's response so far?" someone asked.

Indeed, the deputy administrator was. "I am very happy with FEMA's response so far," responded Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson Jr.

The news conference looked like a success in the Bush administration's effort this week to demonstrate it could respond competently to a disaster.

On Friday, however, the agency admitted that the softball questions were posed by FEMA employees, not reporters.

The White House was not happy with FEMA's response.

"It is not a practice that we would employ here at the White House," said Press Secretary Dana Perino, mentioning three times that it was an "error in judgment." "It's not something I would have condoned, and they, I'm sure, will not do it again."

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, was less happy.

"This is inexcusable and offensive, and stunts like this will not be tolerated or repeated," said spokeswoman Laura Keehner. "It was a lapse of judgment, and we find it offensive, and it won't happen again."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency apologized for the event, but protested that it was not intended to deceive. FEMA announced the news conference with 15 minutes' notice and provided an 800 number for reporters, but it was not set up to take questions. When no reporters showed up, FEMA provided stand-ins to ask questions and a video feed. Several channels broadcast parts of the event live.

"FEMA's goal is to get information out as soon as possible, and in trying to do so we made an error in judgment," Johnson acknowledged in a statement. "Our intent was to provide useful information and be responsive to the many questions we have received. We are reviewing our press procedures and will make the changes necessary to ensure that all of our communications are straightforward and transparent."

Perino also said that the agency was just trying to provide information: "There were so many questions pouring in. It was just a bad way to handle it, and they know that."

FEMA's "error in judgment" comes just more than two years after its agonizingly slow-motion response to thousands of displaced New Orleans residents who waited for help in dreadful conditions at the Superdome. Michael D. Brown, the agency's head, resigned under fire after he became an embarrassment to President Bush, who appeared out of touch when he praised Brown with the memorable comment: "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

Johnson, a retired Coast Guard officer who came to FEMA after the 2005 hurricane, started the briefing Tuesday with a brief statement and took six questions from FEMA employees. On the video, however, it was unclear who was asked the questions.

The questions focused on FEMA's relief efforts for Southern California wildfire victims and whether FEMA had been doing an adequate job.

"I think what you're really seeing here is the benefit of experience, the benefit of good leadership and the benefit of good partnership," Johnson said, "none of which were present in Katrina."

jordy.yager@latimes.com

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