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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 October 2007, 23:59 GMT 00:59 UK
Have lessons of Katrina been learnt?
By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News, Washington

Firefighters in San Diego County, 24 Oct 2007
Firefighters continue to battle fierce blazes across southern California
As wildfires force hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes in California, inevitable comparisons are drawn with the response to Hurricane Katrina.

Has the US learnt the harsh lessons of New Orleans?

The ramifications of the bungled response to Katrina are still felt two years later in the US, both politically and by the people living in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

It has quickly become clear that the White House has no intention of letting events unravel in a similarly chaotic - and public - fashion in California.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and David Paulison, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), are already on the scene.

"What we see now that we did not see during Hurricane Katrina is a very good team effort from the local, the state and the federal government and across the federal agencies," Mr Paulison said.

President George W Bush wants to "witness first-hand" the situation and is due to visit on Thursday, as well as swiftly pledging federal aid to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

After Katrina, he was widely criticised for merely flying over the hurricane-affected areas two days later on his way back from his holiday in Texas to Washington DC.

Big questions

However, while the administration's public response and California's evacuation efforts have clearly been better managed than in New Orleans, other questions remain:

  • given the awareness that dry conditions had created a risk of serious fires, was enough done to prepare?
  • have California's fire services been given enough funding for staff and equipment?
  • has the deployment of National Guard troops to Iraq led to a shortage of manpower and firefighting kit?

Donald Kettl, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, is certain the response could have been better, had part of California's National Guard not been deployed to Iraq.

"We are simply not as well prepared as we used to be to react to these kinds of disasters because the forces we used to have here are in Iraq, and some of their equipment is too," he said.

Map

Back in May, Mr Schwarzenegger himself acknowledged that "a lot of equipment has gone to Iraq, and it doesn't come back when the troops come back" to California.

At the same time, Lt Col John Siepmann, a spokesman for California's National Guard, told the San Francisco Chronicle that half the equipment needed to respond to a major disaster was not in the state.

However, Lt Gen Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, has denied that deployments to Iraq have overstretched California's resources.

Some 1,500 of the state's National Guard troops have been involved in firefighting and humanitarian efforts.

Mindful of criticisms of a sluggish response after Katrina, the Pentagon has also been quick to put active-duty troops on standby and to lend firefighting aircraft.

"One of the lessons we, as a nation, learned is that in a crisis, you don't wait to be asked," said Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defence for homeland defence.

'Very different'

Dr Kettl agrees that what has been seen in California so far represents "vast improvements" as regards the federal government response.

A community centre used as a shelter in San Diego County, 24 Oct 2007
Many shelters have been set up for people forced to flee their homes

"In terms of leaders on the scene, it is far better - that was an enormous problem in the case of Katrina," he said.

But what will ultimately count will be the state and federal authorities' ability to organise aid effectively for those in need, Dr Kettl says.

Assessing the response so far, he said: "The evacuation procedures have been relatively smooth, the shelter and food have been relatively good."

But, he adds, it is difficult to draw direct comparisons between Katrina and what is happening in California because of the different nature and scale of the problems faced.

The hurricane and flooding cut off access to emergency shelters in New Orleans, where thousands became stranded without supplies, in a way that has not happened in California.

Also, many of the affected areas in California are wealthier - with residents better able to flee - than was the case in New Orleans, where many of those trapped were poor or elderly.

'Baby steps'

Steve Erie, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, is much blunter in his criticism of San Diego County's authorities.

We have volunteer fire departments that use bake sales to raise money
Professor Steve Erie

He believes the county's preparedness in terms of firefighting was woefully inadequate - particularly compared to nearby Los Angeles - and that its fire service is seriously under-funded.

Four years ago, after fierce wildfires in southern California cost 15 lives, a number of recommendations were made to try to improve emergency readiness.

But, says Prof Erie, San Diego's voters rejected tax increases that would have boosted fire service funding and the authorities "adopted all the resolutions except those that cost money".

A burned-out house and car in California, 24 Oct 2007
With 1,500 homes razed, a long road to reconstruction lies ahead

As a result, communications systems and inter-agency coordination have improved, he said, but much more is needed to bring San Diego County's many small fire services up to scratch.

"We have volunteer fire departments that use bake sales to raise money, and we are just taking baby steps towards consolidating them, professionalising them and giving them better equipment - and that's four years later," he said.

With more than a dozen fires still blazing and a long path to reconstruction ahead, it may be too early to judge whether all the lessons of Katrina have been taken to heart.

But for some observers, at least, the report card will be mixed.

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