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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.

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What's different now is that, depending on where Ike strikes, the country could be tied up with three different recovery efforts in geographically disparate places, forced to scramble critical equipment, volunteers, and electric crews across vast distances.

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"When you have back-to-back storms of national significance, the question is whether resources currently engaged in the first disaster are going to be freed up in time for the second one," says Craig Fugate, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management in Tallahassee.

Red Cross challenged

This storm season, that's already proving a challenge, says Armond Mascelli, vice president of disaster services at the Red Cross in Washington.

"We do have a deep pool of resources," he says, "although ... there is a certain limit on how many volunteers you can get into a state, so we'll be looking for folks to step forward."

But according to Mr. Kirsch, the Red Cross has laid off a third of its paid workforce this year, and is already having to borrow money for this year's storm season – an indication that the plight of storm-struck regions has not registered among the nation's charitable donors.

Moreover, many church groups are reporting they have only skeleton crews of volunteers available to help areas recover. And Kirsch says he's already hearing about volunteer fatigue from disaster medical assistance teams (DMAT) in New Orleans, many of whom deployed only to face days of boredom.

Volunteer fatigue

"All these people getting deployed who didn't get used, who are sitting around down there, are they going to go out on the next one – and the next one?" he says.

The triple storm combination could affect storm victims in several ways.

Widespread power outages, especially the downing of major transmission lines, could limit the ability of mutual assistance electric crews to restore power quickly, says Jim Owen, a spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute.

Unlike Katrina, there has been no immediate cash dispersals to storm victims, meaning many storm victims are likely to come home to empty bank accounts.

Gas stations, food stores, and hospitals may stay closed for long periods, leading to further hardships.

Already, Terrebonne Parish, La., where Gustav made landfall, is expected to be without power for up to a month, and residents have been urged to not return until services are restored.

Still, US emergency officials said Friday that they can handle the triple threat.

FEMA currently has three national logistics staging areas and eight prestaging areas from where supplies are distributed directly to citizens.

Under the new response structure, FEMA's planning team consists of two groups. One concentrates on recovery operations. The other planning group focuses on trying to anticipate local requirements 72 hours ahead of landfall.

"That's what we've done that enabled us to continually provide support to Gustav while looking ahead to Hanna and Ike," says Glenn Cannon, FEMA's assistant administrator for disaster operations.

Still, emergency officials welcomed news Sunday that tropical storm Josephine, which posed a fourth Atlantic threat, dissipated overnight, weakened by strong atmospheric windshears.