ATLANTA — The federal government is better prepared to assist local authorities this year if a hurricane strikes, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Wednesday.

Chertoff warned that signs point to a “vigorous hurricane season” ahead, although it is unclear where the storms might strike.

Widely criticized for the disastrous federal response to Hurricane Katrina, Chertoff has launched an aggressive public relations blitz throughout the hurricane-prone Southeast in advance of this year’s first storm.

Accompanied by David Paulison, the new director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Chertoff met with Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and top state emergency management officials at the Capitol in Atlanta.

“It really is about relationships that are already set in place,” Perdue said.

“We don’t want to be introducing ourselves to one another when the winds are 75 miles per hour.”

Chertoff reminded officials, however, that disaster response is first and foremost a local issue and federal officials are there to provide assistance.

A report Georgia officials filed with the Department of Homeland Security earlier this year said the state lacks enough buses, ambulances and air assets for a large-scale evacuation of the state’s special needs population in the event of a major hurricane or other disaster.

Officials in Louisiana have been widely criticized for failing to get vulnerable residents with special needs out of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached.

Chertoff said that was not an issue that he and Perdue discussed.

“But it is the single biggest issue as far as I am concerned nationally,” Chertoff said. He said that cities and localities should take a census of their special needs population as they craft an effective means to get them out of harm’s way.

At a stop in North Carolina earlier in the day Chertoff said FEMA will not meet its hiring goals by the end of hurricane season.

Short about 500 workers — one-fifth of the work force — two months ago, FEMA officials initially said they would have 95 percent of their openings filled by mid-May. That date was later pushed to June 1 — the beginning of the hurricane season — and then discarded altogether.

Chertoff also said the agency is still working to confirm a regional director to oversee a seven-state region that includes the nation’s most frequent hurricane targets.

On a separate topic, Chertoff refused to comment on alleged links between two Georgia men being held on terrorism charges and several men recently arrested as part of an apparent terrorism plot in Canada. Chertoff said he did not want to say anything that would jeopardize the case in Canada.

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