Rallying Cry for Hurricane Irene Preparations: Not Katrina, Not Again

Article excerpt

Federal and state emergency managers are acting decisively in an attempt to avoid the mistakes of hurricane Katrina in 2005. The result has impacted millions of lives.

Even before hurricane Irene makes landfall, it has already had a powerful impact on millions of Americans rushing to adjust their lives.

In part, this is no surprise for any hurricane targeting such a densely populated area, as residents rush out to snap up supplies of bottled water and D batteries.

But it also represents an attempt to apply the lessons of past emergency-management failures, particularly by federal agencies. With hurricane Irene's current path taking it directly toward the thickly settled Northeast corridor, the nation's emergency-response capacity is facing scrutiny not seen since hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Even as projections of the storm's clout weakened on Friday, the official response remained the same: not Katrina, not again.

For Washington's Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), shamed by a slow and inadequate response to Katrina in 2005, Irene presents a special test. The federal bureaucracy did not mobilize for Katrina - or even follow its own procedures for emergency response.

This time, Washington is pushing itself and local officials from the Carolinas to New England to get out ahead of the storm. The National Hurricane Center is mapping storm surges at a worst-case high-tide scenario, and FEMA mobilized assets along the storm paths days ahead. "We're taking this storm very seriously, and I know that our state and local partners are as well," said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at a teleconference with reporters on Friday. "In fact, we've already seen a number of states declare emergencies even ahead of the storm."

Asked whether the government might be overhyping the threat by comparing hurricane Irene (a weakening Category 2 storm) with Katrina (a strong Category 3 storm), FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told reporters on Friday: "I think when people think of Katrina, they think of the homes that were destroyed with the flooding. And that may be something we see in the storm surge areas along the coast."

The point of the official warnings and preparation was to save lives, he said. Government may not be able to prevent storm damage or avoid power outages, "But the one thing we can change the outcome on is loss of life, and that's why the evacuation orders that are being issued in the coastal areas are key," he said.

This has resulted in traffic snarls, thousands of airline and event cancellations, and mandatory evacuations affecting millions. But, depending on the aftermath of the storm, that could be part of a new emergency-response normal - at least so long as the sting of Katrina remains.

By Friday morning, hurricane warnings, meaning hurricane conditions could arrive withing 36 hours, extended from the Carolinas to Sandy Hook, N.J. A hurricane watch, meaning hurricane conditions could arrive within 48 hours, were issued north of Sandy Hook up to the Merrimack River in New England, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Not since hurricane Isabel in 2004 has the Atlantic Coast, especially New England, prepared for such a powerful storm.

Govs. Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York and Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey declared states of emergency on Thursday. Subway, commuter rail, and buses will be shut down on Saturday across the region.

New York City ordered the first mandatory evacuation in the city's history, including plans to shut down the city's subway and transit system. The evacuation order now covers mainly shore areas, affecting some 250,000 residents. If a major hurricane (Category 3 or 4) makes landfall just south of New York City, significant low- lying areas in lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island could be evacuated, according to the New York City map of hurricane evacuation zones. …