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U.S. Emergency Aid Officials Promise Improved Effort : Assistance: New head says federal agency will be much more helpful to fire victims than it was after last year’s riots.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Faulted for its performance after recent major disasters, including the Los Angeles riots, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is ready to mount a major “outreach” effort to ensure that Southland fire victims receive all the aid they need to rebuild homes and lives, its director promised Friday.

James Lee Witt, who assumed charge of the federal government’s beleaguered disaster agency in April, said FEMA has adopted a new, aggressive approach that will speed delivery of vital services to residents hit hard by devastating wildfires.

“We’re not the old FEMA anymore,” said Witt, a close friend of President Clinton’s who formerly headed the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. “We’re an agency that is proactive instead of reactive; we want to make people understand that they are customers.”

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Witt, speaking at a news conference at the agency’s Pasadena field office, said four disaster application centers will open in various Southland locations today to accommodate fire victims who want to apply for federal and state assistance.

The locations are: Arcadia Community Regional Park, 405 S. Santa Anita Ave., Arcadia; Laguna Beach Recreation Center, 505 Forrest Ave., Laguna Beach; the Sheriff’s Training Facility at Camarillo Airport, 273 E. Pleasant Valley Road, and the French Valley Airport, 37552 Winchester Road, Murietta, in Riverside County.

The centers will open at 1 p.m. today. After that, they will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sundays through Fridays and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays.

In the past, FEMA has been attacked as a cold bureaucracy that put the burden on citizens to prove that they deserved assistance.

Witt vowed Friday that the agency’s efforts will extend beyond merely accepting applications.

For example, representatives of private insurance companies will be on hand at the disaster centers to work directly with fire victims, the first time such an experiment has been tried, said Witt.

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The agency will also adopt more of a caseworker approach to ensure that victims are advised of all aid programs for which they might qualify, and so that each case will be sure to be followed up, Witt said.

The agency hopes to be able to dispense relief checks within seven to 10 days of application, Witt said.

Witt said the agency is attempting to right past practices that placed much of the onus of gathering information and filling out dozens of forms on the often dazed and emotionally racked victims of disaster.

“We’re going to be doing everything we can do for the (fire victims), just like we did for the Midwest flood victims,” he said.

FEMA received relatively good reviews for its performance following this summer’s massive Midwestern floods, opening dozens of disaster centers and responding quickly with aid.

It was the first bit of positive news for the agency in years. As recently as January, FEMA’s reputation was at such a low ebb that critics were calling for its abolition.

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It was subjected to severe criticism for its laggardly response after Hurricane Hugo, which swept through Southeastern states, and the Loma Prieta earthquake, both in 1989, as well as in the wake of Hurricanes Andrew and Iniki, which devastated South Florida and Hawaii last year.

Much of the sharpest criticism of FEMA’s relief programs has come from Los Angeles, where 50% to 60% of riot victims were denied disaster aid last year. A class-action lawsuit on behalf of thousands of riot victims, filed against the agency in June, alleged that it had illegally denied them relief.

Witt said he could not comment on the matter since it is still pending.

Several California officials said they are impressed with Witt and believe he can turn FEMA around.

“California has had problems with FEMA in the past, both after Loma Prieta and the riots,” said Democratic U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein. “But it’s a new agency and we should give them a chance.”

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