By Jeremy Pelofsky

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the Federal
Emergency Management Agency said his department is better able
to quickly respond to disasters now, five years after Hurricane
Katrina ravaged the U.S. Gulf Coast.

FEMA was widely pilloried in the days after the 2005 storm
raked New Orleans because the agency was ill-prepared to handle
a disaster of that magnitude, including missing thousands of
people at the city's convention center who lacked supplies.

While FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said he believes his
agency is prepared for whatever comes his way, he urged people
to take their own steps to be ready for a disaster in case the
government cannot reach them quickly to provide assistance.

"People are always asking is FEMA ready, is FEMA prepared
as if, if FEMA were prepared, suddenly magically everything
gets better," Fugate said in an interview this week ahead of
his trip to the region. "Here's my question, are people
prepared?"

"If you're looking for somebody else to take care of you in
a disaster, there may not be somebody else fast enough," he
said, noting some of the quickest rescues immediately after
Katrina were done by neighbors, not the government.

The Bush administration was widely criticized for its slow
response to Hurricane Katrina, and the Obama administration
seeks to avoid similar missteps when disaster strikes. There
were early questions about whether the White House responded
fast enough to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

"Until you have the next catastrophic disaster, all you can
say is, 'Here's what we've been doing and the proof will be in
how we perform,"' said Fugate, who previously ran Florida's
emergency management operations for eight years.

"We don't have to wait to determine how bad it is" to
respond to a disaster, he said.

He pointed to the tsunami that hit American Samoa last year
as an example of how FEMA had changed, sending supplies from
Hawaii before damage assessments were received because
officials knew assistance would be needed quickly.

Fugate also said that FEMA was making its way through the
backlog of approving funding for projects, with $2.5 billion
approved since the Obama administration took office in 2009.

"It wasn't that we said yes every time the state brought up
an issue, but we didn't walk away from the table until we got
an answer," he said. "That started moving a backlog of projects
that were sitting on the desk when the (Obama) administration
came in."

But according to FEMA some 24 projects throughout the Gulf
Coast worth up to $630 million remain unresolved and in
arbitration, like for schools and police stations.

Funding for another group of projects was approved
Tuesday, including $11 million for Xavier University for
rebuilding its Louisiana campus. But Fugate noted it would take
time to restore infrastructure that took decades to build.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)