Storm readiness rises. Is it enough?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

"We used to do these [mock drills] all the time, but it got to the point where they weren't effective anymore," especially when it came to public education, says Frank Gutierrez, coordinator of the Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management. "But Katrina and Rita really woke a lot of people up to the fact that we are living in hurricane alley and you have to take it seriously. You have to have a plan."

Because storms have so battered Florida over the past decade, "they have, in many ways, learned their lessons about preparedness," says Mr. Gutierrez. Houston, by contrast, had not been hit by a hurricane since 1983 - until Rita came along last year. And its population has roughly quadrupled in that time - to more than 4 million people.

"And a lot of these people have never been through a hurricane before," says Gutierrez.

That made it all the more troublesome when Rita threatened, just a month after Katrina devastated New Orleans and pushed hundreds of thousands New Orleanians into Houston. Residents who tried to evacuate were often sitting on traffic-choked freeways for up to 24 hours.

Part of Texas' new plans call for opening "contraflow" lanes much sooner and using shoulders for the first time, making sure gas stations along evacuation routes are full 96 hours before winds arrive, and identifying and registering special-needs residents long before a hurricane hits.

Still, a regional approach is crucial, experts say.

A key lesson learned from Katrina and Rita is that when a hurricane threatens cities with large populations, organizations must have aid available across several states, says Rick Schofield, director of preparedness and response for the Southwest service area of the American Red Cross.

And they have to be able to work in unison, something that was stressed over and over again during the three-day Texas exercise.

Looking back on last year's efforts, the organization came up with several new initiatives to help in future disasters.

They include increasing the stockpiling of supplies in high-risk states in order to serve 1 million meals and shelter 500,000 people per day, prestocking 1 million debit cards for affected families, and creating a nationwide database to track the location of shelters - and the number of people in them.

Despite the criticism, FEMA is trying to revamp itself after last year's failures. For example, it is coordinating more closely with the Department of Defense, which is slated to take on a bigger role in emergency response to large natural disasters. (Many disaster experts say the military is not equipped to handle a civilian emergency.) The agency is also working to improve its coordination with others parts of the Department of Homeland Security as well as its internal and external communications systems.

There is special concern this year for displaced people living in trailers.

"A FEMA trailer is not the place you want to be in a hurricane," says Mr. Mayfield of NOAA. "I understand that these people are thinking about rebuilding their homes, dealing with their insurance companies, and finding new jobs. I don't blame them for that - but it is more important than ever to have a hurricane plan."

Last month, FEMA announced that the trailer residents on Mississippi's Gulf Coast would receive door hangers, encouraging them to call a toll-free number by May 26 if they would be needing emergency evacuation during the hurricane season.

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