MEMA's Chief Sees Both Progress And Problems

The signs of destruction and loss don't go away. But MEMA director Robert Latham says on each weekly visit, he is thrilled to see a little bit more progress being made.

"I think it's important for me to be down here and see first hand how things are going and have an opportunity to talk to citizens and visit the elected officials and find out what the issues are," he says.

He hears about everything: insurance claims, disaster assistance, requests for food stamps. No concern is too small when someone needs help.

"If there are issues that we can be a proponent before FEMA, or anybody else, I think it's important for me to see first hand what those issues are so that I can certainly be an advocate for those issues."

Latham's greatest frustration is the slow rate that temporary housing needs are being met.

"That has drug on even though we've made a lot of progress and have over 32,000 travel trailers there's still probably another 5,000 to 8,000 more families that we need to get in those. So now we're moving to another phase of impatience. Now it's been five months. What's the hangup?"

As MEMA's Executive Director, it's Latham's job to get answers to that question and others. But Latham takes it a lot more personal than that. He uses the word "advocate" a lot and he tries to reach out to as many citizens as he can to find out their problems.

"Even though they're federal programs, I feel like I'm their advocate in front of FEMA saying, 'Look at this case again, I don't think they got a fair shake.' And we've done that and it's difficult when you know that we've had over half a million that have registered for assistance and you wonder how many thousands or tens of thousands have been given the short end of the stick on this. I do take it personal because these are citizens of this state who have lost everything."

A study by the state personnel board recommends that MEMA beef up its staff. Right now Robert Latham has 67 employees. Last week he asked the legislature for more money to pay for 70 additional staff members.