The Response

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita Were Like Night and Day

A helicopter tries to repair a breached New Orleans levee that was damaged by Katrina and overcome by the effects of Rita.
A helicopter tries to repair a breached New Orleans levee that was damaged by Katrina and overcome by the effects of Rita. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Spencer S. Hsu and Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 25, 2005

Reinforced armies of federal search teams, medics and National Guard troops began fanning out into wind-whipped and waterlogged southwestern Louisiana and coastal Texas yesterday, racing to prove the government had learned from its disastrous missteps earlier this month on the Gulf Coast.

And while yesterday's early assessments were positive -- with few reports of unanswered calls for help or broad communication breakdowns that crippled the response to Hurricane Katrina -- officials acknowledged that Hurricane Rita had not presented the ultimate test for which they had prepared.

Hurricane Katrina "was so much more massive. Most people still don't understand that," said Michael Lowder, deputy director of response operations at the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters in Washington. In New Orleans, the levees failed, "then you had the civil unrest piece of it. That was something that was not planned for, not anticipated. . . . That affects the whole response."

Although floodwater was still rising yesterday in some low-lying towns and wind restricted damage-assessment flights, state and federal authorities cautiously projected confidence in their ability to respond to the storm in coming days, at least partly because it was far less damaging. President Bush, who visited the Texas emergency command center in Austin, praised government agencies as "well-organized and well-prepared to deal with Rita."

Officials also attributed their success to the sometimes chaotic evacuation of 3 million people from Houston and other cities, an exodus left incomplete in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit Aug. 29.

"The damage is not as severe as we had expected it to be," FEMA Acting Director R. David Paulison said in Washington, despite swamped roads, failed bridges and extensive structural damage across several cities and southwest Louisiana. "Every mayor that we have talked to is crediting the evacuations with the fact we have no reported deaths at this time."

Texas and Louisiana leaders said yesterday's relative calm reflected greater preparation and cooperation at all levels.

"We learned a great deal from Katrina that was put in place in Texas," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said in Austin at a news conference with Gov. Rick Perry (R).

"We are all working together as a team," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) said from Baton Rouge, appearing with U.S. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, in charge of the federal Katrina response. "Our efforts to keep a communications network up have paid off."

The differences in the scale of the two storms were plainly visible. Katrina triggered an "ultra-catastrophe," in the words of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff -- cutting a 90,000-square-mile swath across three states, before triggering a flood that swamped the nation's 35th-largest city and broke down civil order.

In addition to its bigger size, Katrina also struck later in the day than Rita and moved north more slowly, hampering efforts by air crews to get aloft during daylight to grasp its impact.

After Katrina, Lowder said that "basically, everything was shut down for so much longer. This one [Rita] moved out faster; we were able to gather more information quicker."

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