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Government shows more readiness for Wilma

More communications gear and  emergency supplies are in Florida ahead of Hurricane Wilma after Katrina's botched preparations, President Bush’s homeland security adviser said.
Promising to not repeat what happened with Katrina, Department of Homeland Security and FEMA officials discuss emergency plans in preparation for Hurricane Wilma Friday in Washington.
Promising to not repeat what happened with Katrina, Department of Homeland Security and FEMA officials discuss emergency plans in preparation for Hurricane Wilma Friday in Washington.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The government’s Hurricane Katrina preparations “were all wrong,” and more communications gear, emergency supplies and people are in Florida ahead of Hurricane Wilma as a result, President Bush’s homeland security adviser said Friday.

With the powerful Wilma expected to hit Florida on Monday and an administration still rocked by criticism of its Katrina response anxious to be seen as aggressively getting ready, Frances Fragos Townsend detailed what she said were “enhanced” preparations. Some examples:

  • The Pentagon and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are deploying more communications equipment, including 300 satellite telephones, to the areas Wilma might affect.
  • The Pentagon’s U.S. Northern Command, the Colorado Springs, Colo., outfit in charge of the military's involvement in homeland security, has stationed planners inside FEMA headquarters in Washington so the military can be dispatched as quickly as possible to the right places.
  • Larger numbers of FEMA officials have been sent to the region to provide on-the-ground coordination with state and local authorities.
  • Increased amounts of food, water and ice are ready in the region.

Townsend said the government will be able to meet the post-Wilma requests of state and local governments “more effectively and efficiently” than last time.

Officials thought they were ready for Katrina
But she acknowledged that officials believed ahead of Katrina that they were well-prepared then, too.

“The sense of everyone who had been involved at that time was that we were appropriately positioned and we had the mechanisms in place,” she said. “It turned out we were all wrong. We had not adequately anticipated.”

As of Friday, the military was leaving assets such as planes and helicopters in place until it had a better idea of Wilma’s path. The Florida National Guard had 7,500 troops available to help with the storm.

FEMA Director David Paulison advised residents to pay close attention to local emergency management directions if evacuations are needed.

The biggest problem with the Katrina response, he said, was a lack of awareness of the situation on the ground by officials in charge — something he said would be “significantly different” this time.

“We’re going to have situational awareness over this storm to make sure that we know what’s going on and we can provide the equipment and supplies that a particular community needs,” he said.

Townsend’s separate review of the Katrina response, being conducted by a 12-person White House staff, also has already noted that some of the primary shortcomings in emergency management are coordination failures, both within the federal government and between Washington and the local areas, poor information sharing and a potential lack of authority for the government to step in quickly.

Not enough information
Her comments and Paulison’s appeared to echo those of other federal officials after Katrina that placed blame on a lack of adequate information from local authorities in Louisiana.

The internal White House investigation is expected to conclude around the first of the year, in time for Congress to act in the spring if necessary and for other changes to be in place well before next year’s hurricane season.

Townsend made clear that her review was not aimed at finding additional people at fault. Former FEMA Director Michael Brown, the public face of the sluggish federal response to Katrina, was relieved of his onsite command of the crisis and later resigned.

Townsend promised to “go wherever the facts lead us,” even if that includes implicating Bush personally. However, asked about the president’s engagement level in the days just after Katrina hit, she stressed instead the need to examine the quality of the information given to him.

She also insisted it is the role of Congress — which is holding its own hearings into the federal response — to assign blame to individuals and her job to recommend policy changes.

“Lessons are what the president wants, not fingerpointing,” Townsend said.