Correction to This Article
This article about the government response to Hurricane Gustav cited scheduling problems with Pentagon aircraft for throwing plans to evacuate patients off track. The plans were disrupted because of capacity problems with the planes for which the military contracted.

Officials Quick to Praise Emergency Response

Evacuees wait out Hurricane Gustav at a shelter facility in Shreveport, La., a city that took in more than 3,500 people. Efforts to move residents out of harm's way are being hailed as much improved since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Evacuees wait out Hurricane Gustav at a shelter facility in Shreveport, La., a city that took in more than 3,500 people. Efforts to move residents out of harm's way are being hailed as much improved since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. (By Jim Hudelson -- Via Associated Press)
By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

As Hurricane Gustav ground through central Louisiana and authorities nervously awaited damage reports, Bush administration officials yesterday were already applauding their performance so far, three years after the misery of Hurricane Katrina.

President Bush told reporters in Texas before noon that "the coordination on this storm is a lot better than Katrina."

"I feel good about this event," Bush said, crediting the improved response to the "spirit of sharing" between the Republican governors of Gulf Coast states.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator R. David Paulison said aboard Air Force One of the response in Louisiana, "The cooperation is the best I've seen. All the parish presidents, the mayor, the governor, were all on the same page about the evacuations. . . . All four governors, from Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, are all working together also."

So it went. Federal officials congratulated governors. Governor's offices credited emergency managers. Emergency managers credited local first responders.

If government's response to the flooding of New Orleans after Katrina represented a failure at all levels, those most directly involved in making sure Gustav did not repeat the tragedy seemed determined to do a better job -- and to tell the world about it.

And if the response to the Category 2 hurricane turned out to be a hard-won success, it appeared to have a thousand fathers, agreed Michael D. Brown. He was ousted as head of FEMA by the Bush administration after he came to personify the failures in coordination, management and preparedness with Katrina.

"At this [early] stage on Monday evening, shoot, I'd give state and local government an A," Brown said in New York, where he was conducting television news interviews.

Several current and former federal and state emergency management officials singled out the decision by New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) early on to call forcefully for evacuations, in close coordination with Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) and Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R).

The extraordinary evacuation of nearly 2 million Louisianans in 48 hours this weekend stood in sharp contrast with the decision in 2005 by state and city leaders to use the Superdome and New Orleans's convention center as "shelters of last resort." That sent a mixed message to residents and imposed huge added demands on emergency managers once the city flooded. Bush's visits this Labor Day weekend to FEMA headquarters and to the region also differed from his decision when Katrina struck to continue his vacation at home in Crawford, Tex.

"The president was engaged," Brown said. "I certainly could have used [his support] down in New Orleans or Baton Rouge."

To be sure, Katrina's catastrophic scale dwarfed Gustav's impact on the Gulf Coast. The combination in August 2005 of the unexpected failure of federally built levees in New Orleans, the flawed evacuation of the city and the poor planning that kept officials in Baton Rouge and Washington from realizing the magnitude of the unfolding tragedy all tested the government in far crueler ways than Gustav did yesterday.

The Republican cast of governors also played a role in the harmony on display, unlike in 2005, when relations between the White House and then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) broke down. On Sunday morning, GOP presidential candidate John McCain even joined Bush, Paulison and all four governors in a video briefing on Gustav preparations, as he happened to be visiting Barbour at the time.

Paulison said he separately briefed McCain by telephone on Sunday morning and Democratic nominee Barack Obama on Saturday night after each requested it.

Still, Gustav offered a tough, fair test of pre-storm coordination. Certainly the effort was monumental.

FEMA transported 7,000 people by air, including 460 critical-care patients, Paulison and federal health officials said. Most of the sick were flown by the Texas Air National Guard after scheduling problems with Pentagon aircraft initially threw plans off track, according to Louisiana officials.

FEMA itself transported between 30,000 and 40,000 people by buses, planes and trains, even though only about 120 of 700 buses contracted by the state initially showed up. The state school superintendent managed to round up more buses and the National Guard found commercially licensed drivers.

According to a state count dated yesterday, FEMA evacuated at least 19,790 people from New Orleans by bus, plane or train. Of those, 3,592 people were sent to Shreveport, La.; 3,310 to the Army's Fort Chaffee, near Fort Smith, Ark.; 4,661 to Tennessee; 1,362 to Tulsa; 797 to Louisville; 800 to Dallas-Fort Worth; and 5,268 to cities in Alabama.

Challenges large and small remain. It is unknown how many disaster victims will require emergency housing, and how FEMA will provide it. An electronic system to automate registration of bus, train and plane evacuees failed, forcing FEMA to reconcile paper records.

Still, reviews were positive.

"I'll be the first one to point the finger at them, but I will also be the first to pat them on the back," said Mark Merritt, former deputy chief of staff to Clinton administration FEMA chief James Lee Witt. Now president of Witt's consulting firm, which is advising Jindal, Merritt added, "They've stepped up to the plate. The difference is night and day with Katrina."

Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company