Lessons From Katrina

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

HURRICANE GUSTAV is not expected to hit its Gulf Coast bull's-eye until Monday. But city, state and federal officials are not waiting until it's too late to take steps to safeguard the population. R. David Paulison, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is already in the region; Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is there, too. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) left the Democratic Convention in Denver early to head back to Louisiana. And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) has canceled his trip to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., next week, pending the impact of Gustav's winds and rain. We applaud the preparation. It's the execution where things could fall apart.

Before Hurricane Katrina lashed the Crescent City three years ago, FEMA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provided briefings to local and state officials, just as they are doing now. But after the levees broke in New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005, those agencies and the elected officials in charge of them failed miserably when it came to rescuing the drowning city. Nearly 1,000 people died in Louisiana alone, and those who survived were left to fend for themselves in attics, on roofs or in nightmarish shelters for days before an organized rescue effort was mounted. Everyone -- from New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) to President Bush, whose popularity plummeted as a result -- was caught flat-footed. As Gustav barrels its way toward the Gulf Coast, Washington and Louisiana seem determined not to let that happen again.

Mr. Bush declared a state of emergency yesterday, which will allow state and local governments to use federal funds and equipment to augment their disaster-preparedness activities. He also ordered FEMA to help coordinate emergency protective and relief measures in Louisiana. Mr. Jindal has ordered the Louisiana National Guard to stand ready for deployment. There are 700 buses under contract that could be pressed into service to get residents to safety. The state health department has begun receiving twice-daily updates from nursing homes and hospitals. And Mr. Jindal moved up the timetable for possible evacuations based on the projected path of the storm.

The key to surviving a storm such as Gustav, which has already claimed the lives of about 70 people in the Caribbean and is projected to be a Category 2 or 3 storm by Monday, is making sure that all those best-laid plans work.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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