Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Stressed Out
'Stressed Out'
Hurricane Rita, like Katrina before her, made clear that government preparedness plans are hardly up to snuff.
By Tom Masland

Sept. 24, 2005 - Americans often assume that taking steps to be ready for unforeseen emergencies is a deeply-rooted tradition, like the Scout motto: “be prepared." The organization's Web site reports that someone once asked Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting, "Be prepared for what?" Baden-Powell replied: "Why, for any old thing." But now two hurricanes on the Gulf Coast have shredded the assumption that government officials necessarily share that view. Part of the long aftermath to this hurricane season will be new attention to what went wrong--and to the adequacy of preparations for threats of all kinds that could lie ahead.

As if nearly 1,000 deaths to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans weren’t sobering enough, the chaotic flight before Hurricane Rita on Friday offered a fresh object lesson in disaster planning. As Rita neared the Texas coastline, some three million residents got in their cars and made a run for it. Among the results: a 100-mile-long traffic jam outside Houston, hundreds of motorists stranded when their gas ran out, and a deeply peeved public. “This has been a nightmare,” said evacuee Lillian Brown, 46, of Beaumont, whose family was stranded along I-45 for two hours Friday afternoon before rescue workers brought her gas. “This is sad. It should have been better organized.”

Once again, public officials mainly pleaded guilty. “Clearly, the evacuation did not work as the plan was designed,” Harris Country Judge Robert Eckels, the highest elected official in Harris County surrounding Houston, told MSNBC. “There are things we have learned that we need to do differently next time.”

This was no cataclysm. Even in Houston, where the snafus were worst, the job of evacuating the city ultimately got done. The main problem was that far more people heeded warnings to evacuate low-lying areas than authorities expected. The question still remained, though: if things came so unstuck because of a storm that officials had seen coming for three days, what happens when a terrorist sets off a dirty bomb in downtown Cleveland? Or in Times Square. What if there’s a major San Francisco earthquake? Or a rocket attack on the refineries and tank farms massed around Elizabeth, N.J.?

Many put-out residents in places like Houston are likely to focus their anger on local officials. Undoubtedly pulp trees will die as experts revamp their disaster-preparedness studies in the aftermath of the storms. But the federal government’s new super-agency for such matters, which bears the reassuring title Homeland Security, remains in the crosshairs. The director of FEMA, a Homeland agency, resigned after Katrina left hundreds of New Orleans refugees on their own in an increasingly fetid public arena. American voters know how to complain. Ian Porsche, 22, endured five days in the New Orleans Superdome before leaving with his girlfriend-for Houston. Stuck by the side of the road on I-45 Friday, he turned down a Conroe school bus driver who offered him a lift to another shelter. “I’m not gong to another shelter after what I’ve seen,” he said. “I’m just really stressed out.” Undoubtedly, his congressman feels his pain.

With Staci Semrad in Houston