By Al Kamen
Friday, October 26, 2007; Page A19
FEMA has truly learned the lessons of Katrina. Even its handling of the media has improved dramatically. For example, as the California wildfires raged Tuesday, Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, the deputy administrator, had a 1 p.m. news briefing.
Reporters were given only 15 minutes' notice of the briefing, making it unlikely many could show up at FEMA's Southwest D.C. offices. They were given an 800 number to call in, though it was a "listen only" line, the notice said -- no questions. Parts of the briefing were carried live on Fox News, MSNBC and other outlets.
... He was apparently quite familiar with the reporters -- in one case, he appears to say "Mike" and points to a reporter -- and was asked an oddly in-house question about "what it means to have an emergency declaration as opposed to a major disaster declaration" signed by the president. He once again explained smoothly.
... Very smooth, very professional. But something didn't seem right. The reporters were lobbing too many softballs. No one asked about trailers with formaldehyde for those made homeless by the fires. And the media seemed to be giving Johnson all day to wax on and on about FEMA's greatness.
Of course, that could be because the questions were asked by FEMA staffers playing reporters. We're told the questions were asked by Cindy Taylor, FEMA's deputy director of external affairs, and by "Mike" Widomski, the deputy director of public affairs. Director of External Affairs John "Pat" Philbin asked a question, and another came, we understand, from someone who sounds like press aide Ali Kirin.