Katrina chaos spurs new disaster planning

 

A thousand miles from the Gulf Coast, the winds of Hurricane Katrina shook Wisconsin's plans to evacuate Milwaukee and other cities if disaster strikes.

No hurricane has ever hit the lakefront city famed for its beer, but Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) was horrified and chastened as he watched Louisiana's nightmare unfold. "We saw people waiting for help, officials arguing about who was in charge, resources being misdirected, confusion on the ground and a lack of communication," Doyle said.

The governor ordered an urgent review of disaster preparedness plans. The conclusion: Wisconsin was better prepared for the worse than were Louisiana and Mississippi, but still hadn't figured out how to evacuate the sick, poor and elderly or keep the lines of communication open in a disaster.

And that was before fear of Hurricane Rita tied Texas traffic in knots, and Hurricane Wilma's ferocious gusts knocked Florida's well-practiced hurricane relief machinery out of kilter.

Now-familiar scenes -- of families marooned on rooftops and in attics by the flood waters in New Orleans; of a bus bearing elderly evacuees engulfed in flames on a Texas highway; of impatient Miami residents queued around the Orange Bowl for water and ice -- shattered Americans' confidence in the capacity of government at any level to protect them from catastrophe.

So states are moving to shore up their defenses, planning for disasters they now recognize can be far worse than previously imagined. Emergency planners are redrawing plans for what to do if a nuclear power plant suffers a meltdown in Wisconsin, or a seven-story tsunami flattens coastal Oregon, or a 7.6 earthquake rocks central Missouri.

Many states made stopgap improvements to their emergency plans. Evacuation remains the biggest concern; there are no sure-fire strategies for moving masses of people out of harm's way in a crisis.

"We fail at evacuation twice a day: morning rush hour and afternoon rush hour," said Mark Penn, emergency management coordinator for Alexandria, Va., across the Potomac River from the nation's capital.

Other states took immediate heed of the problems bared by the Gulf State hurricanes:

  • After decades of costly earthquakes -- including the devastating 1994 Northridge temblor -- California officials say Katrina's swath of destruction has prompted them to re-examine the state's already strict building codes.
  • California officials also were giving consideration to reviving a plan to reroute water supplies around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which channels much of the state's water. They are worried that their levees would fare no better than New Orleans' did.
  • Two Missouri lawmakers called for a national training exercise to prepare for an earthquake along the New Madrid fault near St. Louis.
  • Hawaii officials sought funds to bolster shelters in case of tsunamis. There were jitters, too, in the Pacific Northwest about the damage a tsunami could inflict on coastal communities.
  • Oregon's legislature established a joint committee on emergency preparedness to consider a range of threats, from tsunamis and earthquakes to avian flu and terrorism.
  • States recognized the importance of providing transportation for the infirm and disabled, who cannot flee on their own. In Wisconsin, state officials were compiling a list of residents with special needs. Connecticut authorities were cataloging all the buses, trains and vans available to move the sick, poor and elderly.
  • The disarray in New Orleans also brought home one lesson in dramatic fashion: Attention must be paid to evacuating the families of police and emergency personnel so rescuers can stay behind to do their jobs.
  • Other states took moves to backstop and protect critical public records after seeing Louisiana's court system in shambles.
  • Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell (R) called a hurricane drill less than two weeks after Hurricane Katrina and ordered new evacuation plans. In neighboring Rhode Island, authorities were drafting the state's first evacuation plan.
  • New Hampshire lawmakers convened an emergency session to review disaster plans. A key concern: how New Hampshire would cope with refugees if a major disaster struck Boston or New York.
  • Maine authorities want a plan to take care of pets so evacuees won't hesitate to flee to shelters that don't accept cats and dogs -- a problem in New Orleans.

With the conspicuous failure of the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Louisiana, some leaders questioned whether the U.S. Department of Homeland Security put too much emphasis after 9/11 on thwarting terrorist attacks and let the country's guard slip against natural disasters.

Equally frustrating for state officials has been federal use of the National Guard, which provides military support to civil authorities dealing with disaster and disorder. The Pentagon has leaned heavily on state Guard units to buttress the regular Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many state officials warn that a breaking point is coming.

Several governors have complained about Guard units' leaving heavy equipment behind for replacements when they return from the war zone. The Guard needs such gear to help communities back home dig out from earthquakes, floods or blizzards, they said.

Beyond customary threats, there is the specter of a medical catastrophe on the horizon, possibly triggered by an emerging, virulent strain of bird flu. Even without a pandemic, health officials worry about vaccine shortages.

C. Mack Sewell, New Mexico's state epidemiologist, said states must be prepared to fend for themselves. "We should not assume that the federal plan is comprehensive," Sewell said. "If there's a pandemic, states are going to be standing in line for the federal stockpile. What's going to happen to a state like New Mexico?"

 
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