Will Feds Dampen Firestorm of Past Criticism?

With large-scale evacuations and a professional football stadium serving as a landing spot for evacuees, the disaster response to California's raging wildfires might bring to mind images Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.

But Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said the federal government learned a few lessons after critics blasted its slow response to the devastating 2005 hurricane.

"We sprang into action yesterday," Chertoff said at a brief press conference Tuesday, before departing Reagan Washington National Airport for Southern California. "So we've been monitoring the situation continuously. The president's been on top of it. We've been on top of it. And we're going to continue to stay ahead of this, as far as we can."

Lessons Learned


"I think there's no question that a couple of the lessons from Katrina which we have put into effect here are, first of all, planning and preparation in advance for these kinds of challenges," he said.

"Second, we have really flooded the zone as quickly as possible by staging assets to deal both with the firefighting issue and with the response issue," Chertoff said.

'Slow and Ineffective' Response to Katrina

The Federal Emergency Management Agency was widely criticized for what the DHS inspector general later determined to be a "slow and ineffective response to Hurricane Katrina."

Although the first levee and floodwall breaches were confirmed by FEMA officials on the ground the day the storm made landfall Aug. 29, 2005, then-FEMA Director Michael Brown stated that evening on ABC News' "Nightline," "I'm not sure we had breaches, but we certainly had some areas where there's some leaks and flooding continuing to occur."

Additionally, the White House took almost 12 hours to confirm initial reports of flooding Aug. 30.

Superdome Disaster

With thousands trapped in the Superdome on the evening of Aug. 29, Brown assured Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco that FEMA would send 500 buses to New Orleans the next day. Although evacuation under the government's hurricane procedures was a categorized as a local function, the plan did call for FEMA to have a backup plan.

But it was not until 1:30 a.m. Aug. 31 that the federal government gave the order for a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.

'Heck of a Job'

Although Brown had some state-level emergency management experience in Oklahoma and served as FEMA's deputy director and the agency's general counsel after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, his credentials were questioned when it was disclosed that he had worked for years at the International Arabian Horse Association.

Days after the storm made landfall, President Bush told the FEMA director, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." But little more than a week later, after the growing outcry over the government's handling of the disaster, Brown was replaced as the leader of recovery efforts in the region. He resigned his post Sept. 12, 2005.

San Diego Evacuees 'Very Comfortable'

Brown's successor, R. David Paulison, assured reporters that Qualcomm stadium, the largest shelter available to evacuees, won't turn into its own disaster area, like the New Orleans Superdome did in Katrina's aftermath.

Paulison said those at the stadium are "very comfortable" and that "there's not a crisis of food or water."

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