Have We Learned Our Lessons from Rita, Katrina?

The damage from Rita still is being felt and measured, but one big question came ashore along with this hurricane three weeks after Katrina: Have we learned better how to handle a potentially catastrophic disaster affecting millions of people?

It only took three weeks for Katrina's painful legacy to become Rita's lessons learned. There is no question that some things simply worked better this time.

Evacuation: In New Orleans it began just 20 hours before Katrina made landfall, less than half the time needed to evacuate this time. This time, people were told to evacuate 72 hours before the storm hit, and some 3 million did. Texas Gov. Rick Perry said, "The immediate and the ultimate goal of getting millions of people out of the way of this storm has been achieved."

Supplies: During Katrina, it took four long days for the first truckloads of food and water to arrive. This time the federal government pre-positioned a caravan of supplies in advance just outside the hurricane zone -- 95 truckloads of food, 165 truckloads of ice, and 185 truckloads of water.

Transportation: In New Orleans, thousands were told to ride out the storm at the Superdome, but ended up stranded. No buses were even ordered until the day before the storm and then, only 100 of them. This time, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided 650 buses three days before Rita landed.

Law and Order: For three days, chaos and looting gripped New Orleans. Three days passed before the National Guard even was called in. This time, nearly 50,000 National Guard and active duty troops were ready.

Vulnerable Communities: Officials were determined that horrific scenes of elderly patients stranded and dying in New Orleans would not be repeated. This time, the military helped evacuate hospitals and nursing homes long before the storm.

Anticipating Obstacles is Key

Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University's Center for Disaster Preparedness, said Katrina showed planners how to anticipate every obstacle.

"Don't talk about evacuating populations, and sheltering populations, if we haven't made provisions for people's pets," he said. "Because it is an important human reality that people wanted to take care of their pets and would be reluctant to leave them. Those were the kinds of lessons we have learned."

This time, pets were allowed to be evacuated with their owners. Families were given special guidance, with parents instructed to put name tags on their children and to take a four-day supply of their medicines with them. The lesson people learned from Katrina is that they can't necessarily count on government for assistance during the first 72 hours of the crisis.

Government Leaders Refine Their Approach

But perhaps the most important change -- leadership. It took 11 days for FEMA director Michael Brown to be relieved after the federal government's slow response and the blistering criticism.

"What we have are people with no real experience doing this," Redlener said. "They have political office. That's different than having actual disaster-management experience."

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."