Have We Learned Our Lessons from Rita, Katrina?

This time, FEMA set up a command center long before the storm hit, and a clear military chain of command to coordinate rescue and relief efforts. But no lesson was larger than the political one. When Katrina hit, President Bush was on vacation at his ranch in Texas. He didn't come to the hurricane zone for four days. This time, he was there -- and at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado -- before the wind blew.

"I am comforted that I've got a capable and well-organized and well-prepared government," Bush said. "I've come here to watch NORTHCOM in action … to see the military capability to plan, organize and move equipment to help people in the affected areas, in this case Louisiana and Texas."

The political lesson: Not only is it important to act; it's important to appear to act.

So while the mistakes of Katrina may have helped people in this storm, Rita herself had a lesson to teach for the future: Evacuating Houston was a nightmare. At the airport, there were not enough screeners on the job. On the highways, there was not enough planning for the millions trying to get out of town. There was a 100-mile traffic jam with no gas.

Redlener worries that with each disaster, the lessons learned are soon forgotten -- and the preparations ignore a fundamental problem.

"Here is what's wrong with this picture," he said. "We actually don't know what we mean by the word 'prepared.' Nobody has ever defined it. Nobody really understands it. Yet we throw enormous resources at it. We are just spending money that ends up being random acts of preparedness, rather than development of a fully understandable and appropriate prepared plan, that can actually be executed when the time comes.

"We are flying by the seat of our pants when it comes to preparing America's cities for major catastrophic events," he added.

But this time, whether by luck or planning, Rita may be remembered more as a lesson learned than a catastrophe.

Cynthia McFadden originally reported this story on Sept. 24, 2005, for the ABC News special, "Hurricane Rita: Surviving the Storm."

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