On Sept. 25, White House press secretary Scott McClellan defended the tumultuous evacuation of 3 million Texans from the path of Hurricane Rita. "This was an unprecedented number of people who were being evacuated," he said. His comments echoed sentiments offered by Texas's governor, a senator and several mayors.
In fact, the evacuation was the largest in U.S. history -- at least since 1999.
Barely six years ago, in a lesson seemingly forgotten by U.S. authorities, Hurricane Floyd prompted the headlong flight of more than 3 million people from coastal Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.
The result, as summarized in a 240-page report by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, foreshadowed the anarchy on freeways leading away from Houston last month: 18-hour traffic jams outside Charleston, S.C.; complaints that highways were not quickly converted into one-way exit routes; and shortages of supplies for hundreds of thousands of evacuees.
The repeated cycle of calamity, response and criticism highlights a persistent flaw in the nation's disaster preparedness four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: the inability of emergency agencies to learn from past mistakes, even those committed in recent years, say current and former government officials involved in homeland security.
Instead, personnel turnover, constantly changing priorities and split responsibilities among federal agencies and state and local governments sap the nation's ability to break patterns of bureaucratic failure, experts say. From establishing compatible communications systems for first responders to enforcing baseline preparedness standards for cities and states, goals set in 2001 remain frustratingly out of reach.
Heightened debate over the military's role in domestic preparedness is also familiar ground. On Sept. 3, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff declared that the sluggish response to the "ultra-catastrophe" wrought by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast required officials to "break the mold" of disaster response and improve on an eight-month-old National Response Plan. On Sept. 25, President Bush proposed enabling "the Defense Department to become the lead agency in coordinating and leading the response effort."
But 13 years earlier, authorities said that Hurricane Andrew had delivered a "mega-catastrophe" to South Florida. Then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) called for an expanded domestic role for the military; others called for improvements to a 1-year-old Federal Response Plan, the NRP's precursor.
Within five months, the Pentagon retooled its response to domestic disasters, issuing its first directive to speed "military support to civil authorities."
Yet the changes did not take root in time to help Katrina's victims.
"We shouldn't be in the same situation, especially now that we have a department whose mission is to increase our preparedness," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and head of the Senate investigation into the Katrina response.
Arnold Punaro, an aide to Nunn for 24 years and a major general in the Marine Corps Reserve, said the problem is not a shortage of plans or policies, but a failure to practice and execute existing powers. "The problem with lessons learned is people unlearn them and make the same mistakes," he said.
John A. Koskinen, the federal official in charge of preparing for the year 2000 software flaw, said a deeper concern is the assumption that disaster preparedness is someone else's problem -- state and local government's or the military's.
The weaknesses in federal disaster management exposed by Katrina are not new. Catastrophic events by their nature overwhelm emergency agencies' ability to respond, communicate and coordinate with one another. Likewise, human nature often places rare threats, no matter how awful, behind smaller, more routine problems in the battle for time and money.
But natural disasters are a predictable matter of actuarial certainty, said Peter Senge, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When the complexity of a mission such as preparedness spreads responsibility so widely across governments, the challenge is to force a "cultural change" at all levels, he said.
The recent history of evacuation planning and military involvement in disaster response plans shows that need. Nine months after Floyd rolled up the Southeast's coastline and struck North Carolina as a Category 3 storm, consultants PBS&J of Tallahassee prepared a detailed evacuation assessment for FEMA and the Army Corps.
"Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina experienced the largest evacuation effort in American history," FEMA said in a Sept. 14, 2000, news release. "Traffic engineers estimated that 3 million people took to the highways in what was to become a frustrating effort. Instead, they created the largest, longest and most incredibly snarled traffic jam ever known."
Floyd's large size and "uncertain path" created "unanticipated volumes of evacuees," who fled areas not considered unsafe, the PBS&J report stated, circumstances shared with Rita last month.
Although the four Southeastern states updated their evacuation models and rebuilt some highways, the message never reached the other side of the Gulf, said PBS&J vice president Donald Lewis. PBS&J was hired to produce an evacuation study last year for the Houston-Galveston area.
The Floyd-affected states updated computer population and evacuation models to track vehicle movements. The improvement would have cost Texas "$100,000 at the most," Lewis said, but it was not done.
About $2 million a year goes to FEMA's hurricane evacuation study program, Lewis said, and the money is split among 24 states. It can take five to seven years for a state such as Virginia to accumulate the money for a full evacuation study of, say, Hampton Roads, Lewis said.
Gas shortages and traffic jams are also long predicted, but education campaigns to shape public expectations have never been undertaken. Lewis's colleague Bob Collins, hurricane program manager for Florida from 1994 to 2004, blamed a failure by government to share information with states and teach the public to prevent panicky overreactions.
"There truly is no overriding coordination, no guidance from the federal government," Collins said.
The debate over the Defense Department's role in disasters raises a different question, of whether the best plans can be stymied by poor execution, experts said. Bush's push for the military to play an expanded role in the worst natural disasters follows lengthy discussions in the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Reviews and the post-Sept. 11 creation of the U.S.-based Northern Command to assume greater homeland security functions.
A 2004 Rand Corp. study proposes a strategy that might permit the Army Reserve to conduct domestic homeland security missions, dedicate some active-duty forces for rapid deployment and training, and develop regional National Guard task forces with special law enforcement units.
Such discussion, joined by the White House, the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and senior members of Congress, echoes debate in 1992, said Col. Mark Eshelman, director of defense support to civil authorities at the Army War College.
A January 1993 Defense Department directive reflected that Andrew "was a formative event for the military," Eshelman said, and laid out the military's construction of "a single system . . . to plan for, and respond to requests from civil government agencies for military support" and respond to "major disasters or emergencies" in cooperation with FEMA.
Lynn Davis, author of the Rand report, said the current debate should not focus so much on new legal authorities or powers, which already exist, but on what the public and leaders are prepared to do in an emergency. "The way you want to use your forces is really the issue," Davis said.
After reports that civilian authorities were slow to request or order military assets for Katrina on Aug. 29, the United States was able to muster what became a force of about 70,000 troops, 21 ships and 215 aircraft in the region for Rita about three weeks later.
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.