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Storm readiness rises. Is it enough?

By Kris AxtmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 11, 2006


Still reeling from last year's hammering hurricanes, states along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico are stepping up preparations for a storm season that is forecast to be at least as active as 2005's.

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While most prepare each spring for hurricane season's official start on June 1 by holding mock drills and educational seminars, this season has taken on new urgency - especially in those Gulf Coast counties that last year suffered some of the worst devastation in a century.

But disaster experts say the millions of dollars being spent on hurricane preparedness this year is not enough.

Of particular concern: some 110,000 hurricane evacuees who are still living in temporary housing, and uncertain coordination at the regional level.

"The big lesson we learned from Katrina is that, as a nation, we are totally unprepared for large, complex disasters," says Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center. "My concern is that we are still totally unprepared."

Though states and communities are beefing up budgets and working out kinks in their emergency-response systems, the country needs a well-functioning organization that can orchestrate regional response, disaster experts say.

That's the role that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is supposed to play. But FEMA has been heavily criticized inside and outside Congress, with some calling for it to be replaced by a new agency. Even the Bush administration, while defending the agency, has acknowledged it isn't yet ready for the start of the hurricane season.

Such problems have left individual states and communities with a sense that they're on their own right now, disaster experts say, and have added an intensity to this year's hurricane preparations.

Texas, for instance, just finished a massive three-day evacuation drill - the largest in the state's history - in an effort to avoid the horrific traffic problems experienced during hurricane Rita. Louisiana will hold a two-day exercise May 23-24. And Florida has approved its second annual Hurricane Preparedness Sales Tax Holiday on May 21-June 1 to coincide with National Hurricane Preparedness Week.

Cities are also ramping up preparations.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, for instance, released the city's new evacuation plan last week. It relies heavily on buses and trains to get people out, eliminates shelters inside the city, and focuses more resources on the elderly and those with special needs.

He also announced that May would be the city's first ever Hurricane Preparedness Month. City officials will work to educate citizens on what to do in case of disaster.

"If there is any good to come out of last hurricane season, I hope it motivates us to create a culture of preparedness," says Max Mayfield, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Hurricane Center in Miami.

He was one of many from NOAA who just completed a weeklong hurricane preparedness tour that started in Brownsville, Texas, and ended in Tampa, Fla.

Indeed, experts say, Texas and Louisiana had become lax in their hurricane preparedness plans because they had "dodged the bullet" so many times in recent years.