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Response to Rita illustrates how government failed after Katrina

WASHINGTON—The speed with which the federal government marshaled significant military and other resources to evacuate, rescue and care for victims of Hurricane Rita raises new questions about why Washington was so slow to respond to Hurricane Katrina less than four weeks earlier.

The Bush administration says it's researching whether the federal government needs to have greater authority to respond to disasters—and whether the military should be in charge.

The response to Rita, however, suggests that the government had plenty of authority to respond to Katrina and that what was lacking during Katrina was an understanding of when to use that authority.

"The atmosphere here is very, very different than it was in the days following Katrina," said John Pine, Louisiana State University Disaster Science and Management director. Pine was in Louisiana's emergency operations center in Baton Rouge on Sunday and said that nearly as many federal officials were present as those from state and local agencies.

A day after Katrina, "it was all on the shoulders of state and locals," Pine said. "There was a lot more staging of a lot more operations in place for the second storm. ... I think you see a huge difference."

To be sure, the devastation wreaked last month by Katrina appears to have been far greater than that caused by Rita. But experts say the threat posed by both should have prompted similar preparations and responses—and similar high-level attention from the Bush administration.

Both storms barreled through the Gulf of Mexico toward large population centers. Both reached Category 5 strength before weakening slightly as they made landfall. And both storms had similar potential for catastrophe—with the approach of Katrina perhaps causing even greater concern because of its track toward New Orleans' below-sea-level population, which was at risk both from the storm and from levees long known to be vulnerable to a direct hit.

Federal officials have been avoiding a detailed discussion of what went wrong during Katrina, when President Bush and other top federal officials were on vacation.

But in praising response to Rita, they provide some guidance, even if unintended, in assessing the government's response to Katrina, which killed more than 1,000 people in Louisiana and Mississippi. At least some of those deaths came in the days during which Katrina victims went largely without federal assistance.

Among the differences:

_President Bush took an active role in monitoring preparations for Rita, even traveling to Colorado to observe how the military's Northern Command responded to the disaster. During Katrina, Bush remained in Crawford, Texas, then traveled to Arizona and California for previously scheduled political appearances as the storm hit.

Other top officials were more actively involved in Rita preparations and remained on the case as the storm came ashore. For Katrina, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attended a ball game in San Diego as New Orleans flooded and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff attended a previously scheduled briefing on avian flu in Atlanta.

_ For Rita, FEMA was more aggressive in getting supplies into the affected areas. As Katrina hit, FEMA said it would have 500 truckloads of water and 500 truckloads of ice for the first 10 days after the storm. The day after Rita hit, 348 truckloads of water and 275 truckloads of ice were already on hand and FEMA's acting director promised that Louisiana would get an additional 200 truckloads of water and 200 truckloads of ice each day thereafter.

_FEMA also moved nearly twice as many urban search and rescue teams into the area for Rita than for Katrina, according to the agency's documents. Before Katrina struck, nine rescue teams were pre-deployed; the number was 17 for Rita.

_Chertoff moved much more quickly in declaring Rita an "incident of national significance," something he did two days before Rita struck, but 36 hours after Katrina had devastated the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts. Chertoff's spokesman says the designation had little practical impact, but others said it allowed the appointment of a Coast Guard admiral to be the top federal official running the federal response even before Rita arrived.

_The Defense Department was actively involved in preparing for Rita in contrast to days of delay before activating its response to Katrina.

U.S. military involvement with Hurricane Rita began while the storm was still churning across the Gulf of Mexico. The Pentagon announced the creation of a joint task force for Rita relief efforts four days before the storm hit, and thousands of active-duty troops were placed on alert for immediate deployment before landfall.

By comparison, the Pentagon did not activate its Katrina task force until two days after Katrina struck and active-duty military units were not used in any major way until at least three days after. The first major deployment of active-duty ground troops did not occur until five days after Katrina struck.

Perhaps the most startling difference was the military's role in evacuating thousands of nursing home residents, hospital patients and other frail people ahead of Rita. During Katrina, hundreds of such patients languished for days in water-surrounded facilities.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the military conducted the evacuations at the request of the Department of Health and Human Services, a request Whitman acknowledged was "a bit outside the chain of command." Under the federal government's National Response Plan, such a request would normally come from FEMA.

Northern Command's preparations for Hurricane Rita also included placing on alert five two-man teams to set up long-range communications in the hardest-hit areas if requested by federal disaster relief officials. The teams were equipped with satellite telephones and fax machines.

Michael Kucharek, a Northern Command spokesman, said the move was "probably one of the quick lessons learned" from Hurricane Katrina, which knocked out phone lines and cellular towers in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, hampering relief operations for days.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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