This time, we're ready, Uncle Sam vows

Evacuees from the Superdome in New Orleans argue as they line up for a bus trip to the Houston Astrodome on Sept. 1, 2005, during evacuation efforts after Hurricane Katrina. For the 2006 hurricane season, federal officials have reviewed local evacuation plans and made more preparations for emergency shelter in an attempt to avoid the debacle of Katrina's aftermath.

The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, June 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 31, 2006 at 10:48 p.m.
WASHINGTON - The storm barrels ashore. Down go the power lines, the cell phone towers, perhaps even homes. But this time it's different.
People are out of harm's way. Generators chug to life. Water, cots, drugs and tarps are at hand. And federal officials, after months of careful planning, tap emergency communication systems allowing them to talk as the chaos unfolds.
Or so everyone hopes. Washington is determined, in the hurricane season that starts today, to be ready to help state and local disaster officials provide the emergency supplies and assistance that will be most needed when the storms sweep ashore.
But despite the toil, the billions spent, the supplies socked away and the palpable wish in Washington to do better than in the season of Katrina and her blowhard siblings, no one takes complete comfort in the state of readiness for Alberto, Beryl, Chris, Debby, Ernesto or whichever tropical storms pack the biggest punch in 2006.
Nine months after the Katrina debacle, broad concerns remain about how nimbly the federal bureaucracy can react and deliver on one big intangible - leadership in the thick of a hurricane's fury.
"They're moving in the right direction," says Craig Fugate, Florida's disaster response chief. "The big question for all of us is how much improvement we will have before the next storm happens."
Some who have seen more than one federal disaster plan come and go are skeptical. Dennis Mileti of the National Hazard Center at the University of Colorado describes Washington as "not nearly as ready as it could be and should be."
Doubt was clear among local emergency officials at a recent hurricane conference in Orlando, where the corridors buzzed with the most basic of questions about Washington's response: "Will they show up?"
New federal disaster chief David Paulison, just confirmed by the Senate last week as head of the much-maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency, gives an unequivocal "yes."
"I know I sound like I'm selling Tupperware or something, but I'm excited," Paulison says. "I have a reputation for rebuilding systems, and I'm going to do this. I will be there. I will show up."
That such assurances are even necessary points to the magnitude of the job Washington faces.
All across the city and at outposts in Hurricane Alley, federal officials have been holding preparedness exercises, conducting leadership seminars, dispatching mobile education teams. They are training more doctors in disaster response, prepositioning more food, water, drugs and medical equipment, and fortifying New Orleans' damaged levees.
And FEMA is talking - incessantly - about how it will be ready.
In an unprecedented move, 27 federal officials from FEMA and the Coast Guard have formed into five teams to lead the national government's response in the Gulf Coast, Florida, the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic and Texas, allowing them to participate in advance training and exercises with local leaders.
Alabama's disaster chief, Bruce Baughman, says he's already got his federal contact's name programmed into his push-to-talk wireless radio. And Baughman has already delivered his wish list of supplies to Washington. He knows precisely what he wants:
"One hundred trucks of water, 100 trucks of ice, 100 trucks of MRE's (meals ready to eat), 50,000 tarps, 25,000 cots. That's the kind of specifics we got into with them. We're asking them to preposition that amount in our state, and not three days prior to the storm. Now. They're working with us to do that."
Enough relief supplies will be on hand - much of it prepositioned in the storm zone - to sustain a million people for a week, says Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff.
All this activity raises concern that state and federal officials will step on one another's toes as all sides act more aggressively this time to speed aid to the needy.
"There is no clear understanding of what to expect from the federal government and how it will be integrated into state and local logistical plans," says Mississippi disaster chief Robert Latham.
The potential for crossed signals was clear last week when the first day of a mock evacuation at a FEMA trailer park for evacuees in Louisiana was canceled because of confusion over who had jurisdiction.
If practice makes perfect, it can also frustrate local officials who want to focus on getting ready on the ground. So it has been with some of the regional hurricane exercises organized by Washington.
Latham, testifying to a House committee last week on behalf of the National Emergency Management Association, said the last thing local governments need "is to travel out of state for the purpose of conducting a hurricane exercise in a cosmetic environment and under unrealistic conditions."
When a big storm tracks toward shore, Job One is getting people out of harm's way.
Evacuating the storm zone isn't Washington's responsibility, but the feds are prodding to try to make sure it happens with dispatch, particularly in Gulf Coast areas where 100,000 families are still in government trailers and especially vulnerable to debris from Katrina that could be deadly in hurricane-force winds.
Paulison says evacuation could be necessary even if just a tropical storm threatens with winds of 39 mph.
Under orders from Congress, the Transportation Department is going over the fine print of evacuation plans required from five Gulf Coast states and suggesting improvements. It also is reviewing broader emergency response plans submitted by every state and 75 of the nation's biggest cities.
Initial results, in February, revealed plenty of work to be done. Only one-third of states were completely confident their plans were adequate to manage catastrophic events. On evacuations specifically, just 11 percent were fully confident about their plans.
An updated report was due this week for President Bush, coinciding with the official start of a hurricane season that begins in earnest in the summer. Forecasters predicted above-average hurricane activity, if less destructive than last year.
Burned by perceptions that Washington was clueless about how bad conditions were in New Orleans during Katrina, the government is creating special reconnaissance teams to be its eyes on the ground.
It also plans to make better use of aerial and satellite images.
Florida's Fugate, a hurricane veteran, says the government's eagerness to get accurate realtime damage assessments has resulted in some "creative differences" in approach.
"We're not going to spend as much time assessing a problem as they are," says Fugate. "I don't want to just send in a team to assess and find out it's bad. I want to send in a team to change the outcome."
The ability of emergency responders from different units to talk to one another - known as interoperability - was a serious problem after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, yet it wasn't fixed for Katrina. Nor is it fixed now.
An April report from a coalition of emergency response groups found that many first responders in eight hurricane-prone states still do not have the equipment needed to communicate among different units. Mississippi, for example, had 40 different radio systems in use. North Carolina's interoperability plan is not even scheduled to be put into effect until 2010.
Fixing the problem will require more time and dollars, but also more federal leadership to set uniform equipment standards.
"At least since Katrina, people in the region have traded information on who has what and how to better communicate," said Bev Cigler, a Penn State professor who helped lead a Katrina task force set up by the American Society for Public Administration.
And, clearly, the federal government has more to do to communicate with itself.
Chertoff says Homeland Security will have eye-of-the-storm communication centers that kick in when the towers tumble.
"It may not happen in the first 10 minutes, but we've got mobile communications packages that we can get pretty much anyplace we need to get it within a reasonable period of time," he promises.
For all of the talk about specific fixes, the biggest question mark centers on Washington's ability to lead and coordinate such an unwieldy enterprise as the federal bureaucracy in a crisis.
Public confidence in government disaster readiness decreased in the months after Katrina. An AP-Ipsos poll in February found that slightly less than half of those polled, 47 percent, said they were very or somewhat confident in the government's preparedness.
In Mississippi, Latham warns against what he sees as a top-heavy emergency response. He said the federal government would be wiser to provide counties and states with more money for disaster planning and preparation, then step forward to fill any voids. "If we continue to try to build it from the top down, we will fail again," he said.
Baughman, the Alabama disaster chief, worries that states will have to go through too many layers of bureaucrats - with fuzzy acronyms like FCOs and PFOs - to reach those really calling the shots in Washington. "We have a pre-designated federal coordinating officer, but also we have a principal federal officer," he said. "I think that that's a layer that is not necessary."
FEMA, which caught the brunt of the criticism for failings in the government's Katrina response, still is about 15 percent short of full staffing.
The magnitude of the challenge is clear in the National Response Plan, the government's blueprint for a textbook-perfect response. It runs 426 pages.
"It's a good document," Fugate says. But to get everyone to act on it, he allows, "We may have to use a 2-by-4 on a couple of folks."

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