Enough lessons from Katrina to fill a how-not-to textbook

Monday, September 19, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Katrina is what classrooms call a teachable moment. Everyone is picking through the mistakes from all levels of government for lessons that will spare more lives and property in the next disaster.

The needs in a nutshell: more, faster and, of course, better.

More rescuers and equipment, sent out sooner. An earlier and no-nonsense evacuation. Faster decisions on asking for federal help, and sending it.

And, this lesson: Do not forget the lessons of the past.

Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, leading hearings on the early lessons of Katrina, captured the scope of the federal review in the title of the investigation: "Back to the Drawing Board."

Locally, officials are taking a hard second look at whether they should rely on urban mass shelters, as New Orleans did at its Super Dome and convention center for those who did not escape.

Aghast at all the people left behind in New Orleans, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius ordered officials to scour cities in her state and identify, down to their names, everyone likely to be bypassed in an evacuation.

Ohio officials are examining their emergency radio network, aware of the communications breakdown along much of the Gulf Coast. Emergency planners elsewhere are reviewing plans and pledging more frequent and realistic evacuation drills.

More broadly, some have drawn the lesson that they cannot rely on the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the federal government itself.

Some issues under review are:

* Second responders. Katrina helped teach that the local police, fire and rescue teams responding first to an emergency can become victims of it themselves. This vanguard lost communications, equipment and much of its effectiveness. Plus, many New Orleans police officers went AWOL.

Troops are often the second wave of help, but in a crisis like Katrina, a faster mass mobilization is needed.

* Federal responsibility. This already is a prime topic in Washington. The impulse after a calamity is to increase the president's limited authority to order and enforce local evacuation.

* Communications disrupted. Across the Gulf Coast, a few hundred satellite phones, at most, were in the hands of officials most in need of them. The chaos also showed the continued need for a system to enable emergency people to talk to each other and different levels of government in a crisis.

* Leadership. To many, Katrina taught that it is past time to scrub the politics out of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

A string of FEMA leaders came to the job through connections to the president or his aides. The storm tested the new emergency management structure that folded FEMA into the Homeland Security Department, combining natural disaster response with terrorism defense. Katrina is prompting a fresh look at whether that was the right thing to do.

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