In fire's path, lessons learned

FEMA and other US agencies seem to have improved their emergency response since the 2005 Katrina fiasco.

In a dark corridor of Qualcomm Stadium, Jennifer Dillon of Rancho Bernardo, Calif., watches her 6-year-old daughter Molly sleep on a cot supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Mother and daughter are surrounded by evacuees from across San Diego, most of whom tote a few items – shirts, towels, stuffed animals – inside backpacks or shoulder bags.

"This time around, the county was much more prepared," says Ms. Dillon, who had evacuated her home once before, during huge fires five years ago.

Others echo her gratitude for an improved local-government response, even amid the biggest mass evacuation – at least 500,000 people – in California's history. Now, attention is shifting to the federal government's performance, with this question uppermost: Have US agencies learned since their botched response to hurricane Katrina in 2005?

With a few exceptions, the answer appears to be a resounding yes, according to many relief organizations, local officials, volunteers, fire victims, and disaster management specialists.

"They do seem to have learned a lot from Katrina and the 2003 fires here," says Richard Carson, an economics professor at University of California, San Diego, who studies governmental agency response to emergencies. "They saw the fire coming and plotted it out and moved people out just in time."

Stung by congressional criticism in the aftermath of Katrina and two formal reports assessing FEMA failures, the agency has responded with vastly improved command-and-control procedures, says Chris Reynolds, a professor and program manager for emergency and disaster management at American Military University in Tampa, Fla.

"FEMA is doing everything right this time around," he says, pointing out its evacuation plans, and the early deployment of out-of-state firefighters, military, National Guard, and firefighting technology.

It quickly set up a 24-hour emergency operations center, a dozen Emergency Support Function (ESF) teams, and interagency field offices for the Marines, the Navy, and the National Guard.

The Defense Department has authorized about 1,500 California National Guardsmen to support firefighting efforts there as well as another 100 Defense Department civilians who are actively engaged in fighting the wildfires.

Additionally, about 500 active-duty marines from the Camp Pendleton, Calif., Marine base have been tapped to help fight the fires but have yet to go because they have not been asked. Another 17,000 California National Guardsmen are also standing by for possible deployment to help fight fires.

"We've been … seeing for ourselves the difference between now and the Katrina situation, and the people here have food, water, and even entertainment," said R. David Paulison, FEMA's director, while on a tour of Qualcomm Stadium Tuesday.

"We won't desert you," added Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff.

The miscues and delays that characterized the aftermath of Katrina – exacerbated by confusing or nonexistent communication between mayor, governor, and federal officials – are not happening in this disaster, Mr. Reynolds says.

"[Gov.] Arnold Schwarzenegger has been very, very smart in saying early and quickly and seriously to residents that they need to evacuate," says Michael Brown, who headed FEMA during hurricane Katrina. "We couldn't get the mayor or the governor to do that until it was way too late."

One major bonus for FEMA in this disaster, say observers, is that Mr. Paulison is a 30-year firefighting veteran.

"No disrespect to previous FEMA chiefs, but Paulison understands the dynamics of fire and has been able to model FEMA into a better reactionary force because of it," says Reynolds.

But some critics have a different view, saying the San Diego episode shows that FEMA is too reactionary, and has given up on its earlier goal of preventing disasters rather than responding to them.

"The Bush administration and the federal government have still moved away from the FEMA approach of the '90s," says R. Scott Fosler, senior fellow at the University of Maryland who has studied FEMA. "That [approach] was to get both states and federal government to stop just responding to emergencies and instead look at why they occur and limit the liability ahead of time."

But he adds that "FEMA has learned from its past and now has people of responsibility that have professional expertise."

Although that expertise has contributed to smoother fire, evacuation, and shelter operations around San Diego, it is less so with federal operations outside the state, says Carson.

"It was wonderful that California called for additional help early and that the state drove fire engines from northern California," says Carson. "But if they had loaded firefighters and engines into US military planes on large scale, they would have been available way earlier."

Later stages of FEMA's effectiveness – how it handles fire claims and reimbursements – have not yet been assessed as officials continue to cope with fires that are still days from being put out.

Damage assessments are beginning to trickle in. Property damage in San Diego County alone is expected to total at least $1 billion, according to officials there Wednesday.

As of press time 16 wildfires have destroyed some 1,500 homes and burned nearly 600 square miles in the seven-county region. One person has been confirmed dead.

But at Qualcomm stadium on Tuesday, disarray was not in evidence.

"This is a very sad and hard time for me, but this is pretty well organized," says Michelle Christian, who fled her home in Ramona on Saturday night, taking her 18-month-old son and her dog to the stadium.

And Jennifer Dillon said she was grateful for clowns and face painters who roamed the stadium grounds, helping to make kids laugh. Booths were set up in every corner offering "everything from free phone calls to any place in the country to insurance claims help," she says.

But she still is a bit on edge about politician and government promises.

"I just hope that the promises to rebuild actually happen or I don't know what I'll do," she says.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) of California says since she was a state official during the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, FEMA has improved in getting out in front of problems and learning how to coordinate.

"The important difference between FEMA during Katrina and now is that they have actually learned to bring people together as a team," says Senator Boxer.

On Tuesday, President Bush declared a federal emergency for seven counties, which will hasten disaster-relief efforts. He is scheduled to tour the disaster area on Thursday with Governor Schwarzenegger.

Gordon Lubold contributed from Washington, and AP material was used in this report.

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