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."

"I talked to the mayor last night, personally. They were set with food and water," Paulison said. "They have about 10,000 people in there. But we also have about 150 National Guard there to provide security. He said that the place is run extremely well."

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Homeland Security adviser Matthew Bettenhausen said the number of evacuees is "constantly fluctuating" due to the mandatory and voluntary evacuations in effect, "but it's the largest-ever evacuations we've ever had in California, and it's up to about 500,000 potentially." Bettenhausen accompanied Chertoff, Paulison and Red Cross CEO Mark Everson back to California.

Emergency Declaration

Bush signed an emergency declaration for the area early Tuesday, which the White House announced shortly before 4 a.m. EDT. Chertoff said he met with Bush later in the morning to discuss response efforts and noted, "We haven't waited for paperwork to be signed, but we have been moving cots, blankets, other supplies into the area of San Diego so that we can handle any necessity for additional sheltering capacity."

"With the president signing this declaration, they are doing everything they can do to take this seriously," said Mark Ghilarducci, a former deputy director of the California State Office Emergency Management and FEMA official now with James Lee Witt Associates.

'Apples and Oranges'

Ghilarducci compared FEMA's efforts during Katrina and during the California wildfires as "apples and oranges."

"FEMA was very involved early on [with the fires]… they sent teams out into the field to do survey work, they've been a lot more leaning forward instead of wait and see," he said.

Paulison told reporters that responders are "shipping down 25,000 more cots, 25,000 more blankets" from Moffett Field, which is near San Jose, almost 500 miles away from San Diego, and that the effort is "in a partnership with the National Guard and with the Red Cross and with FEMA to make sure we have everything that we need."

Everson said at the press briefing that the Red Cross has "been lashed up with FEMA and we have warehouses around the country that already have supplies like cots and blankets, comfort kits, prepositioned."

Chertoff also said there is a special medical needs shelter at Del Mar racetrack, north of San Diego," which is accommodating a couple of thousand people."

High Winds, Spreading Fires

The secretary also noted that the government has brought in firefighters, both those employed by the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, as well as some from other states. The White House said 1,239 federal firefighters have been deployed to help.

Regardless of the response, the winds and unfavorable weather have proved to be the biggest force behind the fires' spread, Chertoff said.

"We've also moved air assets to be poised to take flight when we do have the opportunity to deal with the fire once the winds begin to die down. And we're going to continue to move supplies and assistance into the area," he said.

The difference in dealing with the dynamic nature of these quickly moving fires, Ghilarducci said, is that "with a hurricane you can see it coming in advance. These fires are catastrophic, and you only have moments to act."

But the real effectiveness, Ghilarducci said, will be how FEMA responds to victims' needs and disaster assistance programs for housing assistance and long-term needs.

"The Achilles' heel of any government is the recovery process," he said.

FEMA has also activated its National Emergency Family Registry and Locator System, as well as the National Emergency Child Locator Center in an effort to reunite family members who might become separated from one another as a result of the fires and evacuations.

The Family Registry and Locator System call center can be reached by calling 800-588-9822; the Child Locator Center's number is 866-908-9570. Both centers are staffed 24 hours a day.