Feds' Disaster Planning Shifts Away From Preparedness

Feds' Disaster Planning Shifts Away From Preparedness

c.2005 Newhouse News Service

WASHINGTON -- No one can say they didn't see it coming.

For years before Hurricane Katrina roared ashore Monday morning, devastating the Gulf Coast, officials from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have been warning about their vulnerability to the storms that swirl menacingly in the Gulf of Mexico every hurricane season.

Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation.

On Tuesday, looters could be seen carrying away whole shelves of merchandise from stores in New Orleans with no police in sight. A shortage of boats left people stranded on their roofs a day after the storm passed. State, local and federal rescue workers, all supplied with different radio equipment, were having trouble communicating with one another.

Meanwhile, local officials said that had Washington heeded their warnings about the dire need for hurricane protection -- including fortifying homes, building up levees and repairing barrier islands -- the damage might not have been nearly as bad as it turned out to be.

"If we had been investing resources in restoring our coast, it wouldn't have prevented the storm but the barrier islands would have absorbed some of the tidal surge," said Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La. "People's lives are at stake. We need to take this more seriously."

Jindal and other elected officials credited the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for positioning stockpiles of food, water and medical supplies throughout Louisiana and Mississippi more than a day before Katrina made landfall. The quick response was triggered by an unusually early emergency declaration from President Bush.

Still, the level of devastation from a storm that everyone agreed was not a "worst-case scenario" has focused attention on whether policymakers took the much-heralded threat seriously and whether adequate plans are in place for future natural disasters.

Warning signs have been everywhere. More people than ever are living near hurricane-prone coastlines, earthquake fault lines, forest fire-prone areas and in flood plains, a trend that has created a landscape of expanding risk, with more people, homes and communities in the path of danger.

Not surprisingly, disaster costs are rising to levels unheard of a generation ago, posing a growing problem for insurers, governments and the people in harm's way. The number of federal emergency disaster declarations doubled from an average of 23 a year during 1980-84 to 53 a year during 2000-2004.

Hurricane Andrew set a record of more than $30 billion in losses in 1992, followed quickly by California's Northridge earthquake the next year, which cost more than $40 billion. Early estimates have put the cost of Hurricane Katrina at upwards of $19 billion.

"We've been on this trajectory for about 15 years. We're seeing increasingly bigger disasters and increasingly higher losses," said Kathleen Tierney, director of the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Information Center at the University of Colorado. "Now just about any place a hurricane is going to come in, it's going to hit a developed area. This is the way it's going to be from now on."

Disaster and emergency experts have warned for years that governments, especially the federal government, have put so much stress on disaster response that they have neglected policies to minimize a disaster's impact in advance.

"In the same way that Hurricane Andrew was a wakeup call to Florida, this storm will be a wakeup call to Louisiana and Mississippi," said Robert Hartwig, chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute. "It's going to be very evident that there were an enormous number of vulnerabilities that weren't addressed. There's going to be a lot of finger-pointing."

Louisiana's elected officials were quick to seize on the disaster to press for long-requested federal financial assistance in shoring up Louisiana's coastline. The coastal wetlands erode at a rate of 24 square miles a year and expose south Louisiana to increasing danger.

Until recently, efforts to squeeze coastal protection money out of Washington have met with resistance. The Louisiana congressional delegation urged Congress earlier this year to dedicate a stream of federal money to Louisiana's coast, only to be opposed by the White House. Ultimately a deal was struck to steer $540 million to the state over four years. The total coast of repair work is estimated to be $14 billion.

In its budget, the Bush administration had also proposed a significant reduction in funding for southeast Louisiana's chief hurricane protection project. Bush proposed $10.4 million, a sixth of what local officials say they need.

Some critics said that in a post-Sept. 11 world, when the Department of Homeland Security is focused on preventing another terrorist attack, not enough emphasis is being placed on preparing for natural disasters.

A case in point, they say, is the decision to take away from FEMA its historic responsibility for disaster preparedness. Now the agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, will focus on post-disaster search and rescue.

The Homeland Security agency plans to create a new Directorate of Preparedness, covering planning for both terrorism and natural disasters. But it is still on the drawing board.

Russ Knocke, a Homeland Security spokesman, said the reorganization will lead to better disaster preparation.

"It will let the experts on planning and preparation focus on that and the experts on search and rescue focus on that," Knocke said.

But experts in disaster planning say that it has already sown confusion among those on the front lines of preparing for disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

"It's very confusing to the state and local governments," said James Lee Witt, the FEMA director in the Clinton administration. "Who do they go to and how is it going to be coordinated now? It's really going to be fragmented. I've talked to a lot of the states, and I don't think they're very happy about this."

Aug. 31, 2005

Newhouse A1


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