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Getting ahead of the next big storm

Government agencies and volunteer organizations are testing a new system to regroup and respond to multiple hurricanes.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 8, 2008

Storm front: Ricky Midgett of Wilmington Public Service in North Carolina clears fallen branches.

Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images

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Atlanta

In the post-Katrina emergency management world, the buzzword is "dynamic regrouping."

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In essence, it's the Federal Emergency Management Agency's new proactive response philosophy, using clear-cut lines of communication to move resources along each storm's track to be ready when it strikes – an unprecedented real-time collaboration between soldiers, civilian emergency professionals, and volunteers.

As the US now faces a triumvirate of working cyclones, the new system is undergoing its first trial by fire. With hurricane Gustav and tropical storm Hanna already ashore, and hurricane Ike lining up to strike, the emerging question isn't whether there'll be enough helicopters or rescue boats on hand, but how emergency managers will fill critical volunteer slots ranging from shelter workers to front-line healthcare personnel.

"If hurricanes keep slamming in, FEMA's ability to deploy volunteer agencies is greatly hampered," says Tom Kirsch, a medical response adviser to the Red Cross in Baltimore. "Every agency in the country, whether volunteer or government, is going to be faced with huge stresses. The depth of resources nationally, it's not a deep bullpen there."

With two major storms ashore, the system has mostly worked so far, as thousands of primarily Red Cross volunteers helped out on the periphery of the massive, but mostly orderly, Gulf Coast evacuation that preceded hurricane Gustav.

But even as some in Louisiana girded for a long recovery process, with power outages that could last up to a month in storm-struck coastal parishes, emergency managers began sending resources to the East Coast to confront tropical storm Hanna, including electric crews from the Carolinas who had to leave Louisiana to get ready back home.

Plans change as Ike approaches

Updating readiness plans every six hours, the Defense Department's Northern Command, FEMA, the Red Cross, and state emergency management centers are now tracking Ike, potentially the most powerful storm of the season, as it aimed for the Gulf Coast Sunday.

Planning on the fly for multiple storms is a juggling act made easier by clear directives and open lines of communication between various agencies, says Jack Herrmann, a senior adviser for the National Association of County and City Health Officials in Washington.

Increased focus on volunteer capabilities, too, has given emergency officials a more accurate picture of who is available to help out, when they can come, and what they can do.

"The mood is pretty calm," says Mr. Herrmann from the Red Cross command center in Washington.

"I think people recognize the potential of having storms going on at the same time, and the resource challenges that might occur," he says.

In 2004, four hurricanes – Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeannie – slammed into Florida, with some central Florida counties getting struck three times.

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