Feds Cite Some Progress in Hurricane Prep

The Associated Press
Thursday, June 1, 2006; 6:08 PM

WASHINGTON -- In the chaos after the next big hurricane, the demands on Washington will be many: More protection against looting and violence, temporary housing for victims, a quick way to sign people up for aid.

In short, for everything that went wrong during Hurricane Katrina to go right next time.

After a year of second guessing and reworked plans arising from the Katrina debacle, federal officials cite improvements on several fronts for the hurricane season that started Thursday.

For one, they expect to be able to handle 200,000 calls a day from storm victims seeking assistance, double the number in the wake of Katrina.

Also, thousands of mobile homes are ready to be moved in, and procedures have been sharpened for tracking the location of emergency supplies _ the sort of task companies like UPS and Federal Express do routinely but authorities messed up in the pinch last year.

Still, all the tabletop exercises, supply reinforcements and attempted clarification of responsibilities on paper can do only so much. Precise chains of command will remain untested until a storm happens. Debris from last year's storms add another element of danger to what's ahead. And no one will feel safe from post-storm looting until they see the law in control on the streets.

The government is finishing an assessment of evacuation plans and other efforts to prepare for disasters in all states and in as many as 75 big cities. The study was expected as early as Friday.

"We've taken a pretty candid look at the state of preparedness and it's uneven _ good in some places, not so good in others," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Thursday. He said Washington would work with state and local officials to help them improve their plans.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it has enough food and water to feed up to a million hurricane victims for a week after a storm. By mid-July, which would normally be just in time for the heightened threat of hurricanes, it expects to be able to take the 200,000 daily calls.

And instead of waiting for traumatized victims to seek out the agency, it will go to them.

FEMA personnel will be stationed at Red Cross shelters, waiting to sign up victims as they arrive to avoid the lost time and expense of tracking them across the country as during Katrina, said FEMA Director David Paulison.

Also new this year: Aid workers will drive registration vans, equipped with cell phones and computers, into damaged areas to help people without working phones or transportation.

FEMA also aims to inspect more homes, nearly tripling its capacity to 20,000 a day from 7,000, which could help speed rebuilding by getting money into homeowners' hands more quickly. More than 16,000 mobile homes and travel trailers are available for short-term housing, about half at a staging point in Hope, Ark., where they have been since Katrina.

The failings of last year exposed a multitude of holes to fill and not everything will be done in time. "Our people are tired," Paulison told senators last week. "A lot of them are literally working seven days a week."

Among the undone tasks: FEMA, which administers the nation's flood insurance program, has yet to develop an appeals system for property owners whose claims are rejected. Chertoff assured a senator who threatened to delay Paulison's confirmation last week because of the issue that FEMA would establish an appeals process soon.

Whatever the best-laid plans of government, any hurricane's aftermath will be vastly complicated if able-bodied people ignore evacuation orders in large numbers and if populations in the danger zones don't stockpile their own supplies, including three days of food and water.

"If people are thinking they're going to ride out an evacuation order," Chertoff said, "they are not only betraying their obligation to themselves and their families, but they are violating a civic obligation."

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the nation's governors just this week of a detailed procedure for requesting federal assistance before lawlessness gets out of hand in a disaster.

The Justice Department also has assembled a list of candidates, drawn from the FBI and other agencies, to serve as the top federal law enforcement official at the scene of a hurricane or other disaster. In addition, it has identified law enforcement officers working throughout the federal government who could respond quickly to a disaster scene.

After Katrina, federal health officials sent 14 medical stations, including 3,500 beds for non-acute care, to Louisiana and Mississippi. The Health and Human Services Department ordered six more stations for this hurricane season, boosting the number of available beds to 5,000.

Nationwide, some 6,000 Public Health Services doctors have "go-bags" at the ready and are on a shorter leash this year to ensure that medical help can get into the storm zone if needed.

The doctors are divided into three tiers of readiness. Working one-month shifts, they are on call and expected to be at the airport in as little as 12 hours, said Capt. Andy Stevermer, a doctor and Seattle-based regional emergency coordinator for the federal department.

Stevermer, who spent 110 days in Louisiana after Katrina, also said 25 rapid-response medical teams, with different specialties, have been training together around the country for the first time.

"It makes a big difference when you're out in the field when you're working beside somebody you have worked with and know," Stevermer said.

Getting commodities to the right places _ and knowing where they are at any given moment _ was a huge problem after Katrina, and federal officials expect to have a better fix this time.

Some people went for days without food and water after Katrina because FEMA did not know where its supply trucks were once they left the warehouses and had no way to redirect them when they ended up in the wrong place.

Stored at sites in Atlanta and Fort Worth, Texas, are four times as many ready-made meals as last year, more than twice the amount of water and nearly five times as much ice.

Should this stockpile grow short, Paulison said, an agreement is in place with a Defense Department agency to provide backup and supplies.

Besides food, FEMA says it has enough blue, plastic sheeting for at least 90,000 roofs, tarps for 80,000 households, and hundreds of generators for fuel suppliers, hospitals and other priority buildings.

Chertoff has tried to persuade oil companies to put generators at more gas stations so people can get fuel if the power is out after a storm.

In another post-Katrina change, the armed forces are getting a bigger role in coordinating the nation's disaster response, with Pentagon personnel being stationed at FEMA's 10 regional offices.

Additionally, some 367,000 National Guardsmen will be on call for storm duty.

The Federal Aviation Administration will use people already on the ground to clear airport runways, fire up backup generators if needed, and help reopen for emergency flights and regular business. After Katrina, military flights were operating within 24 hours.


On the Net:

FEMA: http://www.fema.gov

Homeland Security Department: http://dhs.gov

© 2006 The Associated Press