California Disaster: Wildfires Test Post-Katrina Emergency Response

Over 500,000 people have been evacuated as wildfires devastate Southern California. Two years on from Hurricane Katrina, everyone has learned a lesson about dealing with natural disasters -- not least George W. Bush, who reacted quickly to calls for help.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger observes fires from the window of a National Guard helicopter Tuesday.
AP

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger observes fires from the window of a National Guard helicopter Tuesday.

The largest evacuation in California's history is currently underway as wildfires rage in the south of the state, with over 500,000 people forced to leave their homes. The scale of the disaster is reminiscent of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, when over a million Gulf Coast residents were ordered to evacuate.

But one major difference compared to that tragedy has been the speed of the emergency response -- one factor in the relatively low loss of lives so far.

US President George W. Bush certainly appears to have learned from past mistakes. Mindful of criticism that the federal government had been slow to respond to Katrina, Bush moved quickly to react to the wildfires. The White House granted California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's request for a state of emergency to be declared --- which paves the way for federal disaster aid -- just one hour after it was received in Washington in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Earlier on Monday, Bush had pro-actively called Schwarzenegger to offer help, rather than waiting for the governor to call him.

By Tuesday morning West Coast time, the Pentagon had already sent helicopters and troops to California. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and David Paulison, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were also on their way. On Tuesday evening, the White House announced that Bush himself would go to California on Thursday. "We send our prayers and thoughts with those who've been affected," Bush said Tuesday, in a spontaneous departure from a scripted speech on terrorism.

The wildfires, which had destroyed around 1,300 homes and caused at least $100 million (€70 million) worth of damage by Wednesday, are also the biggest challenge that Schwarzenegger has had to face so far as governor. He too is clearly conscious of the Katrina comparision.

Learning from the Mistakes of Katrina

"I think that American cities and states have learned from the mistakes that were made in the past," he said at a press conference on Monday evening at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, where he was visiting evacuees from the fires, after being asked if California had learned from the mistakes of Katrina. Evacuees at the stadium, where 10,000 people have taken refuge, described conditions there as organized and clean -- unlike the chaotic conditions at New Orleans' Superdome in 2005.

Authorities have also learned lessons from 2003's fires in California, which killed 15 people and caused over $2 billion in damage. "We have learned a lot in the last four years since the last fires," Schwarzenegger said. "One of the things you see is there is much more equipment available, more manpower is available, quicker action, everyone is coordinating much faster."

Emergency planners have gone to great lengths to improve systems that did not perform well enough during disasters such as Katrina. "I think Katrina taught us a whole lot," Jodi Traversaro, spokeswoman for California's Office of Emergency Services, told the New York Times.

Los Angeles County fire battalion chief Arthur Ellis told the Wall Street Journal that improved communication with other state and federal agencies, such as the US Forest Service, had allowed him to better coordinate fire-fighting efforts.

Swift emergency response efforts are thought to have contributed to the low death toll so far, with five deaths having been reported by Wednesday.

Among the systems being put to the test was a revolutionary phone alert system in San Diego county, which was established after 2003's fires. The $320,000 "reverse 911" system automatically calls residents to alert them about an emergency. Residents hear recorded messages tailored to their neighborhood: Some communities are told to "be prepared" to leave, while others get the stern instruction "go now" with evacuation instructions.

"The system is being used almost non-stop," Captain Mike McNally from San Diego County Sheriff's Department, which coordinates the calls, told the San Jose newspaper Mercury News. By Tuesday afternoon, more than 350,000 San Diego homes had received calls, the newspaper reported.

Exhausted firefighers and residents were hoping Wednesday that the gale force winds which have been feeding the fires would slacken, with meteorologists predicting a drop in winds late on Wednesday afternoon. "By Thursday, we're expecting it to be pretty much over," Noel Isla, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service's San Diego office, told the Associated Press Wednesday.

dgs/reuters/ap

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