The Federal Emergency Management Agency, having learned Hurricane Katrina's harsh lessons, is winning praise from disaster specialists and elected officials for its rapid response to Hurricane Sandy, but weeks into battling the devastation, the agency is confronting another challenge: the reality of its own limitations.
Thousands of people in New York and New Jersey remain in heavily damaged homes, without power, heat or hot water. They have little sympathy for the bureaucratic hurdles that persist, whether from the widely reviled local utilities or a federal government they say should be doing more.
Some of that frustration boiled over Monday in the basement of a library on Long Island, where Jim Stramezzi was standing in a long line at a makeshift relief center. FEMA had rejected his claim for the flooded home he rents. The damage was supposed to be covered by his landlord's insurance policy. It wasn't. His renter's insurance wouldn't pay, either.
FEMA suggested that he apply for a Small Business Administration loan, but the SBA said Stramezzi, who is retired, wouldn't be able to repay it. Then it was back to FEMA, but now the problem was that his daughter, who lives with her parents, had also applied for help - and two claims from the same address usually get rejected.
"You get all different answers from different people,'' said Stramezzi, who feels that he's "back to square one."
Mike Byrne, a self-effacing former fire captain who is coordinating FEMA's New York City-area response, was visiting the relief center and standing outside the Lindenhurst library. He understands the anger, he said.
His team has been working night and day - ordering home inspections, helping people get meals, water and gas for generators - and yet, "There are limits to everything," he said.
As President Barack Obama prepares to visit the New York area Thursday, the federal response to the storm - which killed more than 100 people in 10 states and knocked out power to 8.5 million - is intensifying. Nearly 60 federal agencies are involved, from the Defense Department, which has flown in hundreds of vehicles to help restore power, to the Internal Revenue Service, which is helping aid groups get tax exempt status.
"The response hasn't been perfect," Obama said Wednesday. "But it's been aggressive and strong and fast and robust."
FEMA, which is leading the government's effort, is operating 60 disaster recovery centers in the affected states and has deployed more than 7,000 people.
"They're doing a tremendous job, especially if you compare their response to Katrina,'' said Bruce Lockwood, a vice president for the International Association of Emergency Managers. He said FEMA proved especially adept at "pre-positioning" supplies and people before the storm.
Still, with each passing day the federal government's limitations become clearer. FEMA's role is to help state and local officials, who are the first responders, and restoring power is primarily a function of private utility companies and state agencies. Even when FEMA jumped in to help on power restoration - the biggest source of tension between residents and responders - it faced problems. About 130,000 in New York and New Jersey remain without electricity.
New York City officials and FEMA said last weekend that the federal government would pay for electrical repairs, but the program is being hampered by shortages of electricians and equipment. Byrne said his inspectors "didn't identify this aspect of the power [problem] until recently."
FEMA administrator Craig Fugate reacts to agency kudos this way: Those praising FEMA, he said, "obviously didn't lose their power.''
Although Fugate has compared the George W. Bush administration's handling of Katrina to "watching a shipwreck occur," he's quick to share credit with his predecessors for FEMA's improved reputation.
It was a 2006 law, the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, that's credited with jolting the culture of an agency that experts say suffered from budget cuts and a lack of professional emergency managers in the early Bush years. The law spurred the creation of FEMA teams that arrive on-scene - along with massive amounts of relief supplies - before disasters.
"Much of the growth in FEMA had taken place prior to my arrival," Fugate said in a rapid-fire interview this week. "What we've been refining in the last couple years is how to implement all of these new capabilities.''
Under Fugate, the agency has made numerous other changes, too, including what experts say is smoother coordination with the Red Cross and state and local emergency managers, better use of social media (people can register for disaster assistance through mobile devices) and last year's release of a first-ever national disaster recovery strategy.
Yet Fugate and his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, know that there is only so much planning they can do.
"We get this a lot, why isn't FEMA doing this, why aren't we doing that," Fugate said. "I don't want to get into any finger-pointing . . . but issues come up that quite honestly are not the federal government, we don't have jurisdiction."
Jurisdictional matters are far from the minds of residents on the edges of New York's many inlets and bays, where life has remained dark and overwhelming. Many New Yorkers have returned to their normal rhythms, and even those in the hardest-hit areas have food, water, clothing and temporary lodging, but the challenge is restoring power and damaged homes.
In Gerritsen Beach, an Irish-Catholic community of police, sanitation workers and other civil servants on a peninsula in southeast Brooklyn, officials estimate that 1,700 of the 2,300 homes flooded. Most still have no power.
FEMA didn't set up a trailer until last weekend. Until then, homeowners used cell phones with spotty service to call the agency hotline to request to have their damages assessed.
Much of the troubleshooting has been left to the locals.
"With all due respect to the federal issue, we're used to taking care of ourselves," Doreen Garson, the acting volunteer fire chief, said as she stood outside a trailer with a steady stream of residents getting hot meals. "I don't know what FEMA is really doing for anyone."
In truth, FEMA inspectors have surveyed the damage in many Gerritsen Beach homes. The results, however, have been mixed for homeowners.
Thomas Burke, a retired construction worker whose newly renovated home flooded and is without power, considers himself lucky. He received a $5,900 FEMA check last week that will help with a new boiler and water heater, plus another $3,000 for a hotel room he doesn't need.
His neighbor, Christine Maffia, was shocked when a FEMA inspector said her family would receive $1,875 to rebuild their gutted home. "I know people who got a lot more," said Maffia, a retired secretary. "This is crazy."
The inspector told her mother that they have 60 days to appeal.
In Sea Gate, a gated community at the western end of Coney Island, just a smattering of the 832 homes have power. City generators are the only power source, throwing dim light on piles of debris and muddy, rutted streets.
Michael Michali said a FEMA inspector told him Sunday that the claim for his family's heavily damaged house would be denied.
"FEMA said they would put pressure on the insurance company to pay," Michali said. "The insurance company said they will put pressure on FEMA. Where's the help?"
Fugate said that applications are evaluated based on whether the applicant has private insurance and can repay a loan, and that this often results in varied amounts of FEMA payments.
The agency so far has spent more than $455 million to assist Sandy victims, drawing from the federal Disaster Relief Fund, which has $7.1 billion for the current budget year.